While the overheated discussion of the ill-fated "nuclear renaissance" has cooled to near-Arctic levels, concern in the industry has shifted to discussing the woes of some nuclear senior citizens. More than half a dozen U.S. nuclear plants are approaching their original 40-year design lives—a figure whose origin had little to do with actual engineering—and some are drawing attention from regulators, local citizens, and activists wondering just how long these plants can and should run.
The March 2011 catastrophe at Japan's Fukushima nuclear complex, which began with the destruction of a 40-year-old General Electric boiling water reactor, helped revitalize a discussion of aging rectors that began decades ago. Several of the older U.S. reactors that are the subject of discussions about when the plants should shut down are GE boilers with the questionable Mark 1 "light bulb and donut" containment structure.
The discussion is occurring despite decisions by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to extend the life of the plant licenses and upgrades—nuclear knee and hip replacements—that have increased the plants' rated output. Is it time for the retirement home, or is there plenty of life left in these atomic geezers?
The most discussion has centered on Vermont Yankee, the 620-MW GE Mark 1 unit that has operated for nearly 40 years on the Connecticut River in the southeastern corner of Vermont, cuddled up to New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Vermont Yankee began operating in November 1972 as a 500-MW unit and is now owned by New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. The NRC approved an upgrade to 620 MW in 2006 and extended the plant's operating license to 2032. But, faced with a chronic problem of a tritium leak from underground piping, the state has been seeking to close the plant for years.
A federal court is now considering
whether the NRC license extension trumps state authority over the operation of generating plants; the state is citing an agreement by Entergy to defer to state authority in 2008. Ironically, in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp. v. Natural Resources Defense Council,
Inc., ruled that state courts cannot impose themselves in cases involving the NRC, as federal law trumps state authority. The facts in the current case are considerably different, and the case is being watched carefully in the industry and by environmental and state groups.