As countries look for carbon-free power sources, nuclear power plants are pushed to the limit, producing greater amounts of energy for longer than intended.
- Nuclear power plants were built with a lifespan in mind, but the need for more carbon-free energy sources is leading to increased dependence on aging reactors.
- The typical power plant has a 40-year lifespan, but some have been successfully run for 80 years.
- Increased energy demand has some asking whether or not the plants can be maintained for an additional decade or two, keeping the plants around for at least 100 years.
- Of the countries with nuclear power plants, the U.S. has the oldest fleet. The average U.S. plant is about 42 years old.
- Within the next ten years, nearly two-thirds of the world’s reactors will be beyond the standard lifespan of 40 years, Bloomberg reports.
Why it’s news
Keeping nuclear power plants around beyond their traditional lifespan wouldn’t have been a question decades ago, but as more governments commit to carbon-free energy initiatives, they are forced to increase dependency on nuclear reactors.
Nearly 70 nations have committed to net-zero emissions, and the U.S. and Europe have planned to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030. However, the end date for that goal is quickly approaching.
In the UK, officials hope to increase nuclear electricity generation from 15% to 25% by 2050. The U.S. plans to keep up the aging arsenal of power plants with nearly $6 billion in government subsidies. Belgium, Finland, and Slovakia are extending their plants’ lives, and France has plans to construct new reactors. Last year, Germany decided to keep three of its plants that were previously scheduled to be closed.
Before nuclear’s new-found popularity, proponents of the energy source were dwindling. The expensive initial investment and accidents, including Chernobyl and Fukushima, soured public sentiment. Because of this, few new plants have been constructed in recent years.
Even if government officials were to start investing in newly constructed plants now, construction can sometimes take up to ten years—too late to reach 2030 goals.
While depending on old reactors might work in the meantime, the plants’ age does present additional risks, such as brittle concrete and steel. Nuclear accidents are rare, but when they happen, the results can be disastrous when they happen.
As the reactors age, some experts argue that there is no way to achieve emissions goals without temporarily depending on nuclear power plants. The geriatric plants will require more frequent and more expensive repairs, but maintaining nuclear energy output may be the only way to reach carbon-emission goals by 2030.