8 December 2019

US Reactors Threatened by Sea‑Level Rise Granted 80‑Year Operating License

WNISR, 8 December 2019

For the first time in the history of nuclear power, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on 4 December 2019 granted two commercial nuclear reactors, Turkey Point units 3&4, a second 20-year license extension permitting them to operate until they are 80 years old.

The Turkey Point reactors, located 30 km south of Miami, Florida, and operated by Florida Power & Light (FPL), were connected to the grid on 2 November 1972 and 21 June 1973 respectively and are now licensed to operate until 19 July 2052 and 10 April 2053. FPL applied for the ‘subsequent license renewal’ in April 2018, the first utility in the U.S. to apply for a second 20 year license extension.

Geoffrey Fettus, a senior lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), stated:

“It’s absurd to push through a license extension more than a decade before the extension would even take effect, and for a plant along the vulnerable coast of Florida south of Miami. The NRC continues to put its head in the sand and ignore the risks that rising seas pose to this plant. Despite the NRC’s rash decision, the fight is not over. Our appeals are pending before the Commission now, and if we have to take it up before a court at some point, we’ll likely do that, too.”

The decision by the NRC is potentially of strategic significance, though there remain major uncertainties as to whether reactors granted such license extensions will operate through their full term. The latest U.S. unit to close, Three Mile Island-1 in September 2019, operated only for 45 years.

Craig Piercy, CEO of the American Nuclear Society, applauded both the NRC and FPL, “for the successful subsequent license renewal of Turkey Point. This is a truly significant step in the fight to preserve our nuclear fleet and decarbonize our electricity sector."

However, multiple environmental groups which had intervened during the licensing process, criticized the decision. Damon Moglen, senior strategic advisor of the Climate and Energy Program at Friends of the Earth, called the development “a licensing disaster waiting to happen... This decision in no way serves the public and the environment, it only serves the interest of a very precise industry looking to protect its profits”.

The NRC is currently reviewing applications for subsequent license renewals from Exelon Corporation for Surry 1&2 and Dominion Energy for Peach Bottom 2&3. The World Nuclear Association (WNA) reported that according to the U.S. Department of Energy, some 20 reactors are planning or intending to operate up to 80 years, with more expected to apply in the future as they get closer to the end of their operating licenses. As of September 2019, there were 96 commercial reactors in the U.S. reactor fleet with a mean age of 38.9 years.