50-Year Old Nuclear Units, Nowhere Near Retirement

50-Year Old Nuclear Units, Nowhere Near Retirement
Arkansas’ only nuclear power plant, Entergy Arkansas’ Nuclear One, is near Russellville on the banks of Lake Dardanelle. (Corey S. Krasko)

How would you feel about having a nuclear power plant up the road? Plenty of folks around Lake Dardanelle, home to Arkansas Nuclear One, have been just fine with it for nearly a half-century.

But what about having a 100-year-old nuclear facility nearby, particularly with America’s vulnerable and underfunded infrastructure in the news?

On Friday, Unit 1 of ANO will turn 47. It came online May 21, 1974, a little more than four years after the nation’s two oldest nuclear power stations, commissioned in December 1969. And one of those, Excelon’s Dresden plant in Illinois, is being retired this fall.

With nuclear’s emission-free power emerging as a paradoxical pillar in the nation’s push against greenhouse gases, regulators have approved an 80-year life span for nuclear plants in Florida and Pennsylvania, and industry experts are seriously discussing life spans of 100 years or more. The average age of operational plants in the U.S. is nearly 40.

ANO is a generation workhorse for Entergy Arkansas, the state’s largest electric utility. Boastings residential electric rates among the lowest in the county, Entergy relies on nuclear generation for about 70% of its power.

And that will remain true until at least the middle 2030s. ANO’s two units are safe, economical and easy on the air, as well as core elements for keeping parent company Entergy Corp.’s emissions pledge. Take the word of Kurt Castleberry, Entergy Arkansas’ director of resource planning and market operations.

“Nuclear power plants in the United States are constantly adapting based on both regulatory input and industry best practices, with equipment being refurbished and replaced for reliability and efficiency,” Castleberry said last week. “Arkansas Nuclear One’s two units currently are licensed to run through 2034 and 2038,” the 60th anniversaries of their commissioning in 1974 and 1978.

Castleberry got his engineering bachelor’s at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, a 10-minute drive from ANO. He didn’t say specifically that Entergy hopes to run the units to age 80, but he noted that the NRC “provides a process to evaluate potential license extensions in 20-year increments.”

Utility Dive’s Matthew Bandyk explored the graying of America’s reactors last month in an article headlined “How long can a nuclear plant run?” Because modern costs and regulatory sensitivities make it nearly impossible to build new nuclear plants, keeping existing units up and well-maintained is absolutely crucial to keeping more carbon out of the air, many experts argued.

The U.S. has commissioned no new nuclear plants for 30 years; planned new units in Waynesboro, Georgia, are unfinished after eight years of construction and billions of dollars in cost overruns.

Those who grew up on Three Mile Island, “The China Syndrome” and “No Nukes” may see the alliance between nuclear power and climate activism as odd. But unlike burning coal or natural gas, nuclear generation itself doesn’t emit carbon or foul the atmosphere. (Let’s sidestep for now the environmental costs of uranium mining and that little problem of radioactive material disposal.)

Utility officials and regulators must plan for emissions far into the future, and extending nuclear plant life makes sense, even if the idea of a century-old reactor is understandably unsettling.

Aging’s effects vary in complex systems, even those regularly maintained, and doubts are human. As former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Allison Macfarlane asked recently, “Would you get on a 747 that is 100 years old?”

The NRC first broached the subject of 100-year-old reactors in a January meeting, asking in a request for comments whether now is the right time to “begin to consider the potential technical issues and the development of guidance documents to support license renewal for operation for up to 100 years.” No decision is imminent, but the subject will return.

“To decarbonize our electric grid in the next 15 years is a huge lift,” said Brett Rampal, director of nuclear innovation for the Clean Air Task Force, a group based in Boston that bills itself as a problem-solver in climate change. Rampal told Utility Dive that existing nuclear power provides “more than half of U.S. clean electricity.” He doesn’t even want to ponder a clean grid that doesn’t keep at least some of those assets.

Castleberry said Entergy is committed to “operating our nuclear plants safely, securely and reliably,” and he called carbon-free nuclear energy power critical to keeping the company’s 2050 net-zero emissions goals.

“Operating our utility-area nuclear fleet for many years into the future makes sense for all our stakeholders.”