SEABROOK, N.H. — A daylong Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting Thursday will revolve around discussion of any technical issues that could arise if nuclear power plants were licensed to operate for 100 years.
When a nuclear power plant is first licensed by the NRC, that license permits a plant to operate for 40 years. After that, owners of nuclear plants can apply for a 20-year license extension. Nearly every power plant in the U.S. has gone through that renewal process at least once, according to NRC spokesman Scott Burnell.
Seabrook Station at 626 Lafayette Road received approval from the NRC in 2019 to extend its operating license from 2030 to 2050. The plant sits about 17 miles northwest — as the seagull flies — from parts of Cape Ann.
As of Oct. 31, the federal Energy Information Administration said there were 56 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 94 nuclear reactors in 28 states.
About 10 years ago, the NRC began discussions to address what protocols should be put in place if plant owners wanted to renew their license a second time, allowing operation for 80 years. Burnell said the law does not set a limit on how many times a plant can apply to renew its license.
The NRC has since awarded second renewals to a Florida plant and one in Pennsylvania, allowing operation for 80 years. The meeting Thursday — which will be online and open to the public — poses the question, what protocols should be in place if a plant owner pursued a third renewal, allowing it to operate for 100 years?
“With the way that our procedures are set up, you wouldn’t see any applications for a potential third renewal for about a decade,” Burnell said, explaining that nuclear plants would need to operate for at least another 10 years before they could even have enough information to pursue a third renewal from the NRC.
The NRC already looks at the long-term effects of aging on concrete, electric cables and other mechanical components of nuclear plants, he said. In moving forward, staff members need to decide if these issues need further research or fresh input.
“The reason for this meeting on Thursday is for the technical staff to hear from established researchers, both from the nuclear industry and from outside, and from the general public to talk about what technical issues does the agency need to consider?” Burnell said.
He added that there are not any plants seeking an extension from 80 to 100 years, but the NRC wants to prepare for when that occurs.
The spokesman said staff members are taking into account that some current research stems from contracts that they have, and some of those contracts are close to expiring. The NRC needs to decide if this information is accurate and if it can be built upon before starting from scratch.
Natalie Hildt Treat, executive director for C-10, an Amesbury-based nonprofit that monitors Seabrook Station and its impact on surrounding communities, said C-10 has already brought attention to issues related to aging concrete at Seabrook, the first nuclear power plant known to have this problem.
Prior to and while Seabrook Station was undergoing its recent license renewal process, C-10 pressed the NRC to address concrete degradation caused by alkali-silica reaction in which tiny cracks develop in concrete structures. C-10 worked closely with Victor Saouma, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder and an expert in alkali-silica reaction.
Saouma is one of the experts who will speak Thursday on technical issues relating to concrete. C-10 believes there should be federal regulations that include taking concrete samples from all of the nation’s nuclear reactors, testing them “rigorously,” and creating protocols for how to manage issues as they arise, Treat said.
“We don’t think the NRC or the plant operators have a handle on whether these reactors are safe today, much less an unprecedented number of decades,” she said.
Treat added that Seabrook Station, like other plants around the country, was designed a few decades ago and they “are not getting any safer as they age.”
“It is implausible to think that plants could safely operate for more than double of their anticipated life span,” she said.
Construction of the Seabrook reactor began in 1976 and the plant began operating at full power in 1990.
More information on the work of C-10 may be found at www.c-10.org.
The public meeting is Thursday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information or for the Microsoft Teams webinar details, visit www.nrc.gov/pmns/mtg?do=details& Code=20201407.
To access the meeting by telephone, call 301-576-2978 and then enter the passcode, 835226175#.
Heather Alterisio may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org