Saturday, December 29, 2007

Utilities push limits of nuclear plants

December 29, 2007

They're worked longer, harder.

With new nuclear power plants still years away, the industry plans to push the nation's aging nuclear fleet to last longer and work harder.

The industry says it's perfectly safe, but not everyone agrees.

Here in Florida and across the country, utilities have asked federal regulators to extend their plants' 40-year operating licenses for another 20 years. Many of those utilities also want to alter their nuclear plants to produce more electricity.

"From an engineering and technical standpoint, there is no reason not to extend the life of the plant," said Buddy Eller, spokesman for Progress Energy Florida. "And from an economic and environmental standpoint, in terms of emissions, it's a win-win for customers."

The St. Petersburg utility has already won approval to increase the output of its Crystal River nuclear plant, and plans to ask for a 20-year license renewal, says the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Crystal River's 40-year license expires in 2016.

"Our agency doesn't look at any other factor more than 'can it be done safely?'" said NRC spokesman Roger Hannah.

But not everyone agrees that the commission's oversight is enough. Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said renewals don't take into account increased population around plants, terrorist attack risks or the effects of aging combined with making plants work harder.

"If you don't have a perfect understanding of these aging issues, then are your inspection programs adequate?" Lyman asked.

So far, the NRC has approved 20-year license renewals for 48 of the nation's 103 nuclear reactors, and has 10 more under review, Hannah said. Florida Power & Light, which provides electricity to most of southeast Florida and operates four nuclear power plants in the state, already received renewals for its Florida plants.

Progress Energy Florida's sister utility in the Carolinas won renewals for two of its three nuclear facilities in North and South Carolina. The NRC said this week that there were no environmental reasons not to give the company's third plant, Shearon Harris, a renewal.

While utilities push to make their plants last longer, they also want them to produce more electricity. In nuclear parlance, it's called an "uprate." Since 2005, the NRC has approved 11 uprates, has 13 more under review and expects about 25 more applications in the next four to five years, Hannah said. The uprates will increase electricity output anywhere from 3 percent to 20 percent.

Crystal River is working on an uprate. Florida Power & Light won Public Service Commission approval for a 414-megawatt uprate at St. Lucie and Turkey Point earlier this month.

Uprates don't compromise safety, because most plants were "over-designed," said Hannah. He likened it to driving a high-performance sports car at low speeds. It can go much faster.

Lyman said the additional vibration and heat stress, combined with aging ,could cause equipment to fail.

"The common thread is that we don't believe that the rules and oversight for these changes are adequate."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at or (813) 225-3117.

Florida's nuclear reactors

Progress Energy Florida
- One reactor at its Crystal River power station in Citrus County. The original 40-year operating license expires Dec. 2016. It plans to ask in early 2009 for a 20-year renewal.

Florida Power & Light
- Four reactors: St. Lucie 1 and 2 and Turkey Point 3 and 4. St. Lucie 1 would have expired in March 2016, and St. Lucie 2 in April 2023. Granted 20-year license renewals to both plants in 2003.
- Turkey Point 3 license would have expired in July 2012 and Turkey Point 4 would have expired in April 2013. It was granted 20-year license renewals to both plants in 2002.

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