To coincide with the publication of the World Nuclear Association's technical position paper The Enduring Value of Nuclear Energy Assets, World Nuclear News interviewed the co-chairs of the Long-term Operation Task Force, Michael Baron and Abdou Al Mazouzi.

The Turkey Point nuclear power plant (Image: NRC)

Five units completed 50 years of operation last year and Turkey Point became the first plant in the USA to obtain a licence to operate for 80 years. How would you describe the significance of these milestones?

They are incredible milestones for nuclear energy and the engineering and science that drive safety and innovation. As the world moves towards zero-carbon goals, power providers must adjust to meet new demands, while considering safety, reliability and environmental energy sources. Continuing to have reliable 24/7 baseload power to build a new tomorrow is key. Wind and solar are intermittent, coal does not help the environment in emitting significant amounts of carbon dioxide. Natural gas emits carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases, is not available in some areas and requires long-distance transmission and transportation.

In its 50 years of operation, nuclear power has proved that it can be operated safely, reliably and efficiently at high capacity factors. Nuclear power is pivotal for maintaining needed capacity for sustained reliability and future global growth meeting zero-carbon goals. Extending the operating lives of nuclear power plants to 80 years by utilising operational experience, lessons learned and innovation, and accounting for all the technical aspects of plant ageing, shows how the industry is managed safely by performing rigorous reviews of systems, equipment, welds and piping, concrete, electrical cables and reactor pressure vessels.

In the USA, sound engineering practices have shown the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that nuclear power plant operators have solid plans to demonstrate and address the effects of aging on plant systems, structures and components. This rigorous technical licensing process and approach led to the issuance of Turkey Point’s 80-year licence renewal.

The life extension of nuclear power plants will assure that we have the foundation to maintain the needs of today and also span the time until advanced nuclear technology is developed. This will allow us to meet our environmental goals with CO2 emissions-free generation.

According to International Energy Agency Executive Director Fatih Birol, lifetime extensions for nuclear plants "are not only a cost-effective solution, but also keep our climate targets alive … They are the most urgent policy challenge today". Do you agree?

Yes, 100%. There are still some environmental sceptics but there is scientific evidence of climate change. We are collectively running out of time to address this issue; we need to protect the future of our world and deliver a safe environment for many generations to come. There are many researchers working on new ways to address our future power needs, but until these new ideas develop and can be put into practical use, we need to address the challenges at hand.

Proven reliable, zero-carbon and safe nuclear power will help us build new infrastructure and provide the capacity required to make countries self-sufficient, especially in these times of pandemics; nuclear should be embraced and not abandoned. Nuclear plants that are being considered for life extensions are in incredibly good condition and are among the best-running plants in all categories. Advanced management models and applications have proven that appropriate equipment trending and inspection can provide the basis to predict component performance long before degradation. Asset management plans can address equipment renewal and allow each plant to make informed decisions to keep a facility’s condition at optimum levels and operating to the highest safety standards. Lifetime extensions enable a lower-cost alternative to new build while maintaining clean, environmentally friendly nuclear power that allows the time required for new technologies to be developed.

While some plants are continuing to operate for longer than originally envisaged, some well-managed facilities in France, the USA and elsewhere have been shut down prematurely. What are the main reasons for this?

The main reasons for premature shut downs are economics, public opinion or safety. Nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of electricity generation, except where subsidies are used or there is direct access to low-cost fossil fuels. Nuclear power plants are expensive to build but relatively cheap to run and are emissions free. Existing plants function well with a high degree of reliability and predictability. The operating cost of these plants is lower than almost all fossil fuel competitors. Risks to existing plants lie in the impacts of subsidised intermittent renewable or low-cost gas generation. The political risk of higher, specifically-nuclear, taxation adds to the risks.

Public opinion has also contributed to premature shutdowns. These are reactions to the accidents at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island because of a general lack of education and understanding of the technical circumstances, which have created fear among the general public. The fact is that there are currently 441 reactors generating safe, reliable and emissions-free power worldwide, with 18,526 combined years of operation.

Safety has always been the number one priority at nuclear plant sites, with trending analysis of plant perimeters, inspections and rigorous monitoring continuing at every utility. Mitigation of operational challenges or emergent situations is driven by procedural requirements to address potential issues or emergent circumstances, and a utility may choose to shut down a unit prematurely based on these circumstances. Nuclear operation technical specifications absolutely do not allow the margin of safety to be diminished.

To meet global environmental goals, everything that can be done to keep the worldwide nuclear fleet in operation should be done. We need to have assurances and a bridge to new technology needs to be considered or many older and smaller reactors will probably be closed over the next 10-15 years. It’s very important that we educate all the responsible parties so that the closure of safe and efficient nuclear facilities is prevented.

New nuclear power plants must be part of our future energy mix and there are some very exciting things under way in new nuclear research and development that will ensure that increased demand for electricity is met.

What are the main lessons operators considering LTO of their facilities can learn from?

The industry has decades of experience of operating the world's fleet at optimum levels by optimising management models and outage execution. Some of our oldest sites are operating at 94% capacity factors or more for sustained periods, giving us a deep understanding of what needs to be addressed at aging plants. Life extensions have been approved for 60 years and now 80 years of operation. Evaluating technical and economic feasibility, lessons have been learned from equipment replacement and modernisation, and from plant refurbishments, upgrades and power uprates. All these have provided new input to the cost-benefit assessments of LTO.

All the major considerations start with the targets of high levels of safety and the optimisation of management models and outage templates that use best practice for their execution and long-term asset management. The operation and evaluation of systems, structures and components, and shared information from industry organisations and utilities that have already performed life extension work, are important. An architectural engineering firm familiar with life-extension work should be employed and a review of local and international industry information should be performed. Regulatory input through a strong relationship-based openness and transparency is critical to the process. Specific focus areas on physical ageing and technology obsolescence will need to be assessed, and safety assessments must be performed in parallel with other reviews.

Identification of current plant conditions, including modifications and operating experience, must be highlighted. The determination of reasonable and practical modifications that should be made to enhance the safety of the plant to a level approaching that of modern plants will be required to allow for LTO. And a reasonable schedule should be prepared for any upgrades or modification work. Nuclear industry organisations, regulators, utilities, equipment manufacturers, engineering and licensing consultants with a vast amount of reference material should all contribute to an LTO project.

How concerned are you about the ability of ageing plants to secure the parts they need to continue to operate reliably?

The global nuclear energy supply chain is evolving but stable. In the USA, if the trend of premature closures continues, however, then the supply chain may be negatively impacted. Policies for emissions-free nuclear generation need to be recognised and embraced, and the supply chain will need to adapt accordingly. The energy supply chain is a mature enterprise servicing not only existing but a growing number of new customers in multiple countries and traditional supply hubs may need to relocate.

The nuclear supply chain will be worth trillions of dollars over the next 15 years. It includes new reactor development, construction, maintenance services for existing reactors, power generation equipment, professional support services, training, reactor life extensions, and decommissioning services. And that is expanding to 31 countries. In some of these, established equipment suppliers have let their nuclear certifications (N-Stamp) lapse, and so planning for alternative suppliers and potential increased reliance on commercial grade dedication are being developed.

Globally, nuclear is a necessary element for energy power portfolios for the future, assuring that we continue to improve the environment, renew infrastructure and continue to move forwards. New certified suppliers may emerge in new countries, and continued vigilance for quality, inspection and acceptance will sustain the needs of the worldwide fleet for now.

What is the role of governments and regulators in ensuring a successful LTO programme?

Governmental and regulatory backing for LTO programmes, both technically and financially, is key. Progress with next-generation planning that recognises the value of nuclear will help us meet our environmental impact goals, strengthen regional self-reliance and move our renewal and advancement of infrastructure forwards. Nuclear regulators, who are responsible for reviewing the LTO application and also for issuing licence extensions, can ensure a successful LTO programme through process simplification with well-defined milestones. They must work with utilities and set regulations and goals with regards to safety, environmental impact, level of inspection, evaluation and upgrade that the LTO process will require. All of these should be clearly defined. Procedures and evaluations and the required oversight, along with regulatory and legislative frameworks and timetables, should provide a system for licensing that is clear and concise.

Michael Baron is president and CEO of Global Nuclear Associates. Abdou Al Mazouzi is a researcher in EDF's R&D division.

Date: Thursday, 02 July 2020
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