Eighty is the new forty for nuclear energy.

When the first wave of nuclear reactor from the 1960’s to the 1980’s occurred, an arbitrary number of years for their commercial duration was set at 40 years, but not for any technical reasons. Nuclear science and reactor designs from this first generation did not have enough actual usage data known about the durability of the material technology that was use at that time.

While the 40 year threshold has already occurred for some of those early reactors and many more coming up in the next decade, it appears the current U.S. fleet of 99 nuclear power plants could likely run for another 50 or even 70 years before it is retired. The total reactor count had reached 105 during the 1990’s and no new reactors had been connected to the grid until this year.

So why are nuclear plants being shuttered prematurely across the United States? Answer: the cost and lack of demand for generating electricity. The plane and simple answer is that natural gas has become the new normal for generating electricity and only coal can beat its cost. This has occurred at the same time the US is actually using less electricity.

Coal will no longer be in the picture like it used to be because of more and more regulations that are designed to put the coal industry out of business. Renewable subsidy has also made nuclear power generated electricity less competitive. Hopefully, 2016 will be the last year the tax payers will have to pay for someone else’s electricity with a sunset on those renewable subsidies.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) expects the first application for an 80-year license could come within five years or less — perhaps the largest lingering question is one of basic science: How do heavy doses of radiation, over generations, fundamentally alter materials like steel and concrete?

Gary Was (that is his name), the director of the University of Michigan’s Phoenix Energy Institute and an expert in aging materials said, “Thirty years ago, we didn’t have techniques to see material changes.” It’s taken many years for us to understand the problems. The Department of Energy even began a program looking at “long-term operations,” as it is known in the industry.

Nuclear power supplies some 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. The vast majority of the United States energy is generated from carbon-intensive fossil fuels, that is, coal and natural gas. Natural gas is use to replace older coal burning power plants and natural gas is used to replaced the early shuttered nuclear power plants and natural gas is also used to supplement both wind and solar renewable energy sources during down times, which is often. As you can see, the US is becoming a natural gas energy domain.

According to Ronald Szilard, the technical director of DOE’s Light-Water Reactor Sustainability Program at Idaho National Laboratory, “The focus right now is very intense on building new advanced nuclear power plants, because we have come to the realization that reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the future cannot be achieved without pushing nuclear further,” he said. “Both existing and new plants will have to contribute,” to sustain our biosphere.

The United States has been well served by the caution of engineers who built the country’s first generations of nuclear power plants, as seen in the ability of its plants to seamlessly cross the 40-year mark. “Today, virtually every component in a reactor plant has been replaced at one point,” said Tiffany Edwards, a DOE spokeswoman. “The exceptions are the reactor pressure vessel and the concrete [containment] structures. However, even those could be considered.”

Despite the concerns which arose among the public after the Three Mile Island accident, the incident highlights the success of the reactor’s safety systems. Several independent studies have assessed the radiation releases and possible effects on the people and the environment around TMI since the 1979 accident at TMI-2. The most recent was a 13-year study on 32,000 people. None has found any adverse health effects such as cancers which might be linked to the accident. The safety record of the US nuclear fleet has been outstanding and it is a shame that the public is not aware of this, except my readers.

After a forty year hiatus, mostly because of over regulated cost, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar 2 reactor lifted its control rods from the water in the core, and neutrons went about the business of splitting uranium atoms, life comes to a new nuclear reactor. The industry refers this as going critical.

“Watts Bar 2 nuclear reactor is a big step forward for clean energy, and we really have to be pushing that as hard as we can for the sake of the climate” said MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel. As an avid supporter of nuclear energy for the most efficient energy source, I have to agree with that statement 100 percent.

Now that many environmentalists and climate scientists have realized that nuclear energy is essential for addressing global warming, a coalition of environmental groups sponsored a multi-day “March for Environmental Hope in California” in support of nuclear power. That march from San Francisco to Sacramento occurred last week.

It is the reverse of all the anti-nuke marches back in the 70’s and 80’s and organized by the same people. It took them long enough to realize that nuclear energy was not bad for the environment, but it may be too late. California just announced the premature shutter of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant, the last two nuclear reactors in the state. This is the second worst decision the State of California has ever made.

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