Proposal could mean Millstone reactors could operate 20 years longer than expected
Waterford — The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission convened Thursday to discuss the possibility of expanding license renewal for nuclear reactors to 100 years, potentially opening the door for Millstone Nuclear Power Station reactors to remain licensed until 2075 and 2085, respectively.
The exploratory meeting was meant to begin an official discussion regarding license renewal for 100 years of plant operation. Nuclear plants were originally licensed for 40 years, which was later extended another 20 years to 60, and a subsequent renewal brought that number to 80 years.
The meeting featured NRC members, industry professionals, interested parties and participants from the general public. Experts explained the engineering adjustments that could be necessitated by license extensions.
Millstone units have already had their licenses extended once. Unit 2, originally licensed in 1975, entered its extended license period in 2015. Its license is set to expire in 2035. Unit 3, originally licensed in 1986, doesn’t enter its extended period until 2025. Its license is set to expire in 2045. Millstone’s Unit 1 operated from 1970 to 1995, shutting down after the discovery of a leaking valve.
If the NRC decides to allow reactor license renewals for up to 100 years, operators would have to apply for renewals, which are examined on a case-by-case basis.
Ken Holt, a spokesman for Dominion Energy, which owns Millstone, said the meeting was meant to establish ground rules for reviewing the potential 100-year license applications.
“There’s a whole process involved where a license holder, like Dominion Energy, creates an application that says, ‘Here’s why we can operate for another 20 years,’” Holt said. “‘Here’s the status of our systems, the status of our programs, and the NRC evaluates that and makes a decision.”
Holt called the NRC “an aggressive regulator” and said the agency should continue “holding operators’ feet to the fire in ensuring they are doing things correctly and safely.”
“You have to have science behind you. You have to have some justification for why this is safe, and that’s what this meeting was about,” Holt said. “What kind of challenges have we seen, and what will we need to do to ensure these plants can operate safely?”
Allen Hiser, a senior technical adviser at the NRC focused on license renewal, offered some history during last week’s proceedings.
"The legislation that enables the NRC to license nuclear power plants is in the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 as amended,” Hiser said. “The AEA enables the NRC to license plants to operate for 40 years and allows for renewal of the license upon the expiration of each period. There is nothing in the AEA that has any restrictions on subsequent renewals.”
Hiser said there are 94 operating reactor units in the U.S. At present, 86 reactors have licenses that stretch beyond 40 years, and eight reactors have 40-year licenses.
The reactor license renewal issue is two-pronged. There are the specific questions of whether a reactor's systems and structures are safe and how to determine that. Then there's the larger question about the continued existence of nuclear power.
In Millstone's case, proponents of nuclear power, like Holt, mention the environmental benefit of it, as it’s a zero-emission clean energy source. He also points to Millstone’s contributions to Waterford’s tax base and its position as a top employer in the region.
Nancy Burton, director of the watchdog group Connecticut Coalition Against Millstone, on the other hand, treated last week’s meeting as an opportunity to address the main complaint of anti-nuclear activists, such as excessive radiation and its effect on the surrounding population, the possibility of an explosion, waste and other safety issues.
“In a desperate and extreme move to rescue the dangerous, dirty and failed nuclear industry, the NRC is considering extending the nuclear licenses of the nation’s 94 operating nuclear reactors, including Millstone’s, to 100 years,” Burton said, calling the idea “an extreme act of nuclear madness.”
Many comments from the public during Thursday’s meeting expressed opposition to 100-year license renewal. Some criticized the NRC, which anti-nuclear groups and activists sometimes refer to as the “Nuclear Rubberstamp Commission,” for even broaching the subject of 100-year license renewal. Representatives from Beyond Nuclear, a nonprofit organization focused on educating the public about nuclear power, strongly objected to the idea of extending license renewal, as did Erica Gray, the nuclear issues chair for the Virginia Sierra Club.
“I really question even talking about 100 years since the already-confirmed process to take reactors up to 80 years is inadequate in so many ways,” Gray said. “There’s still no solution to the waste. It’s completely unethical to continue down this path of making the most toxic waste known to mankind and dumping it onto future generations that will have to live with these hazards. It’s time to stop this whole new con job. The reality is, research is already showing renewables, such as solar and wind, can power the world cheaper, safer and with less risk of a disaster or terrorism.”
Holt said Dominion is generally supportive of extending reactor license renewals to 100 years “if it can be done safely.”
“That’s always the number one consideration we have in the decisions we make: Can it be done safely?” Holt said. “We have a lot of money as a corporation invested in Millstone, and we want it to have a long lifespan, and we’re going take care of our asset and ensure it can operate safely. If we don’t think it can operate safely, then we would shut it down.”