This has occurred thanks to a change in the regulatory environment of the power industry, and to an increased financial drive to sell more power while keeping production costs down. This increased financial drive has led to a search for better ways to manage the cost and duration of planned outages without sacrificing safety, through routes such as new, less expensive maintenance and repair procedures. As such procedures are becoming the norm, especially those related to safety or increasing productivity in the nuclear power industry, the ability to continue to significantly increase nuclear power is tapering off.
Extending reactor life – a new trend
A new question we have been hearing more frequently lately reveals the second trend emerging in the industry. This question is “How can we extend the functional lives of the current reactors so they will continue to be a valuable source of cost efficient power for the years to come?”
The majority of nuclear power plants around the world were built to last 25 to 35 years, during the 1970s and 1980s. Clearly we are reaching a critical point where we must decide to update or replace them. While in a small number of cases the plants are being decommissioned (approximately 10 percent), in the rest of the cases the operators are looking for new approaches to extend the lives of their reactors and plants 15 to 25 more years.
While updating the plants makes sense both fiscally and practically (especially in countries that have little natural power generation resources), there are many challenges. Reactors with complex and compact designs have been difficult to access and inspect, leading to challenges as we look to extend their lives. For example, they must be inspected for aging-related problems such as tiny metal cracks or fissures. If these things are found, the areas where these problems are located must be repaired, removed and or replaced. Before regulatory organizations and the public approve extended plant operating life, with no sacrifice to our society’s safety, these challenges must be faced and overcome. The many advantages to our society of being able to safely and cost effectively operate these power plants for another 15 to 25 years are tremendous. Therefore, we see this emerging trend as one that will significantly increase in the coming years.
In fact, currently firms around the world are in the process of inspecting these reactors in some cases even sending cameras underwater to evaluate these issues. The next most important step is to find permanent, practical solutions for extending reactor life. The solutions we develop must also continue to minimize down time, an extra day of which can translate into as much as $1 million in lost revenue. These two trends represent an exciting opportunity for the nuclear power industry, one which we firmly believe will be met with cost effective and interesting approaches that continue to match or exceed the trend to minimize planned maintenance duration, and at least maintain capacity (such as in the case of reactors at risk for being shut down). Already we have been part of developing approaches to inspect and repair problems in a few reactors around the world. By this time next year we anticipate that work to have been multiplied significantly, as more solutions are developed to address all of the challenges discussed at more plants as they continue to age.
Building more reactors, another new trend
Just now emerging is the idea of building new operating plants. This idea was unheard of 10 to 20 years ago. This third trend comes because our society has re-evaluated its view of nuclear power, including its safety, its complete environmental impact versus alternative power generation processes, and the recognition that conservation cannot by itself meet the world’s increasing needs for power. This trend to re-examine society’s current belief systems about the safety of nuclear power compared to other less environmentally favorable power generation methods, holds the most potential for new and exciting technology and growth improvement prospects for the energy industry.