Western Countries Breathe New Life Into Old Nuclear Plants


The West has begun to muster the money and political support to keep decades-old nuclear reactors from shutting down, aiming to maintain a crucial source of low-carbon electricity as many economies face an energy crunch.

The U.S., France and a handful of other countries are planning to keep dozens of reactors running decades after their original operating licenses expire. Belgium is moving to allow two reactors that were set to close in 2025 to operate until 2036 to help Europe wean itself off Russian natural gas after the invasion of Ukraine.

Germany, which was set to close all its reactors by the end of the year, is now debating whether to keep the last three open into next year to help save gas through the winter as Moscow has sharply cut shipments of the fuel. Some politicians are calling for the reactors to remain open even longer.

Japan’s prime minister this week called for the country to reopen more of its nuclear reactors because of the high price of natural gas, after the country idled most of them in the aftermath of the 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.

Those moves reflect a growing consensus that the global economy needs every megawatt of nuclear energy available to bolster energy supplies and help meet United Nations climate targets, which call for global net greenhouse-gas emissions to fall to zero by the middle of the century.

Western leaders are preparing for the possibility that Russian natural gas flows through the key Nord Stream pipeline may never return to full levels. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday explains what an energy crisis could look like in Europe, and how it might ripple through the world. Illustration: David Fang

Natural-gas prices have soared as Russia clamps down on exports of the fuel, softening antinuclear sentiment in countries such as Germany and Japan that import lots of gas. Maintaining and replacing equipment for an existing reactor is also far cheaper and simpler than building a new one. Western nations have spent tens of billions of dollars over the past decade on a handful of new reactors that are years behind schedule and billions over budget.

France is proposing to build up to 14 new large reactors in the coming decades. The U.K., the Czech Republic, Poland and other countries are planning to build new reactors as well. Utilities in the U.S. and Europe are considering building small modular reactors that backers say will be easier to build than larger ones. But these projects are likely at least a decade away from delivering power to customers, analysts say.

The cost of keeping reactors open also compares favorably with replacing them with other low-carbon sources of electricity such as wind turbines and solar panels that suffer from the unpredictability of the elements, says the International Energy Agency. Nuclear power produces close to zero emissions of carbon dioxide, the main gas that scientists say is causing the Earth to warm.

“Extending nuclear plants’ lifetimes is an indispensable part of a cost-effective path to net zero by 2050,” the IEA said in a report published this summer. “Yet decisions about how long to operate these plants threaten to erode that foundation.”

Nuclear reactor B, right, at Hinkley Point power station in England closed despite requests by U.K. officials to keep it open this winter.



Photo:

toby melville/Reuters

Some reactors are closing anyway. The U.K.’s Hinkley Point B plant shut for good on Aug. 1, despite suggestions from some U.K. lawmakers that it could be kept open to bolster energy supplies through the winter. U.K. ministers said they didn’t ask the plant’s owner, EDF Energy, a subsidiary of French state-controlled power giant

EDF SA,

to run it longer. All the U.K.’s other reactors are set to close by 2028, though EDF Energy has said it is reviewing whether to seek a 20-year operating extension for another reactor it owns.

Local officials in Canada are moving ahead with the shutdown of the Pickering plant in Ontario starting in 2024. The Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan shut in May. The Diablo Canyon plant, which generates around 8% of California’s electricity, is slated to begin shutting down in 2024, but Gov.

Gavin Newsom

has proposed keeping it open until 2029 and possibly longer.

There are technical and financial obstacles to prolonging the lives of reactors. In the U.K., EDF Energy has been monitoring the appearance of cracks in graphite blocks in the reactor cores. The problem is specific to the U.K.’s main reactor design, which isn’t used anywhere else in the world. EDF Energy says the cracks cannot be repaired.

In the U.S., 13 U.S. nuclear reactors have shut since 2013, largely because the low cost of alternative fuels such as natural gas rendered nuclear energy unprofitable.

State governments in recent years have provided subsidies to stop closures. U.S. climate legislation signed into law this month offers tax credits to help nuclear reactors stay open, with an estimated cost of $30 billion over the next decade.

Keeping reactors running beyond the period covered by their initial operating license—usually 40 years—entails major investments to ensure safety. Large components need to be replaced, and some regulators are requiring new safety measures to respond to the meltdowns at the reactors in Fukushima. France, which has the largest nuclear fleet in Europe, is spending €50 billion, or about $50 billion, to ensure that all 56 of its nuclear reactors can continue operating after 40 years.

Nuclear-plant owners also need to take account of the growing risk that climate change poses to their operations, officials say. Almost all nuclear plants are located next to the sea or rivers to supply vast quantities of water for generating electricity and cooling the reactor core. That makes them potentially vulnerable to the effects of rising sea levels, increasing drought and higher storm intensity.

The Tricastin nuclear power plant is located along a canal in Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux, France.



Photo:

Theo Giacometti/Bloomberg News

This summer, France lowered production at several reactors because the river water they use to generate electricity was too low and too warm.

Near the southern tip of Florida, the Turkey Point nuclear power plant sits on land that scientists say is threatened by rising seas and more powerful storms as the Earth warms. It also holds the first reactor in the world that the nuclear industry has proposed to keep operating for up to 80 years, placing it at the leading edge of the debate.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2019 approved a 20-year extension of the operating license for the plant’s two reactors, the second 20-year extension received by the plant after its original 40-year license expired. The NRC did so using an environmental analysis by the plant’s owner,

NextEra Energy Inc.

subsidiary Florida Power & Light, that was based largely on a template for the plant’s previous 20-year extension.

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Earlier this year, the NRC reversed that decision after environmentalists challenged it, ruling that the analysis wasn’t sufficient to comply with the law. Environmental groups say the plant’s cooling system—a large network of canals next to the plant—is at risk of more powerful storm surges, threatening sensitive habitats in Biscayne Bay and the Everglades near the plant.

“We’ve got a lot of old plants being exposed to extreme weather,” said

Caroline Reiser,

an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the environmental groups that challenged the decision. “It’s kind of a dangerous combination to be ignoring.”

Florida Power & Light says the plant is elevated 20 feet above sea level and has a host of measures to protect it from flooding, including a three-foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete building housing the reactor that is sealed. After the accident at Fukushima, the company submitted a study to regulators concluding that the plant could withstand severe flooding, including a storm surge bigger than the one produced by Hurricane Andrew, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the U.S.

“If new information about changing environmental conditions becomes available, FPL and the NRC will evaluate the new information to determine if any safety-related changes are needed at its nuclear power plants,” said company spokesman

Bill Orlove.

Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com

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