With New Nukes Unlikely, US To Supercharge Aging Reactor Fleet

The United States can generate the power equivalent of seven new nuclear reactors by upgrading its current fleet, according to the Department of Energy.
DOE took an important step last week toward increasing the power output and extending the life of existing reactors.
Scientists launched a "virtual reactor" Tuesday at DOE's Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors (CASL) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The software will model the performance of the country's aging light-water reactors so scientists can determine how to make them burn more fuel more intensely and more efficiently—and for a longer lifetime.
"These upgrades could improve the energy output of our existing reactor fleet by as much as seven reactors' worth at a fraction of the cost of building new reactors, while providing continued improvements in reliability and safety," DOE announced.
At a recent forum in Chicago, an official from Argonne National Laboratory predicted this would become the U.S. nuclear strategy:
"I think the prospects for new plants are very limited," said Hussein Khalil, head of Argonne's Nuclear Energy Division. "But I think we’ll try to keep our existing plants going and try to get the most out of them. As long as we can safely do that.”
CASL will investigate ways to extend the life of existing U.S. reactors, an effort likely to ruffle the feathers of local opponents nationwide who are looking forward to the expiration of reactor licenses. DOE sees license extension as a way to reduce the per unit cost of nuclear power: new energy with little or no new capital costs.
Without extensions, the U.S. faces a sudden drop in nuclear power output.
U.S. officials envisioned that reactors would operate for 60 years, with a 40-year initial license and one 20-year extension, but according to the Energy Information Administration, that schedule "would result in the retirement of more than one-third of existing U.S. nuclear capacity between 2029 and 2035."
To extend the life of reactors, the CASL team has to determine the effects of increased radiation and aging on the integrity of the reactor vessel, internal components, containment and piping.
The scientists will also investigate ways of "uprating" the power output of existing reactors, which risks damage to structures, systems, and components, fuel and steam generator integrity and may violate existing safety limits.
They will seek ways to burn more fuel more efficiently to reduce nuclear waste production, but first they have to determine whether the fuel system can handle the strain. The Consortium released a slideshow outlining these goals and risks.
The U.S. has 104 nuclear reactors, 50 of which have received license renewals, according to EIA. They supply about 20 percent of the nation's electricity.
Two new reactor projects are expected to receive construction permits this year, in Georgia and South Carolina, but those projects advanced through the permit process before a series of setbacks that is expected to delay the permitting of more new reactors for several years.
Those setbacks include reduced energy demand, a drop in the price of natural gas, and safety concerns stemming from the Fukushima disaster in Japan.
"Nuclear energy is our nation's largest source of carbon-free power and is an important part of our energy mix moving forward," said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. "Work done at this facility will help make our fleet of reactors even safer and more efficient while creating jobs, fueling the economy and saving consumers money on their utility bills."
CASL is a hub of laboratories headquartered at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Its partner institutions include the Electric Power Research Institute, Idaho National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, Sandia National Laboratories, Tennessee Valley Authority, University of Michigan and the manufacturer of the new reactors in the southeast: Westinghouse Electric Company.

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