You probably haven’t heard about a recent regulatory decision that will reduce carbon emissions because it doesn’t follow the green template of controlling private industry and suppressing economic growth.
Last week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for the first time extended a nuclear plant’s license so it can operate for 80 years. The decision for the Turkey Point reactors in south Florida could encourage other plant owners to apply for renewals and extend the viability of the leading carbon-free energy source.
A majority of the 58 nuclear plants now supplying power to U.S. homes and businesses were built in the 1970s and 1980s, when they were licensed for 40 years. Most plants have applied for and received 20-year extensions to bring their life spans to 60 years. Yet antinuclear activists use the license renewal periods to pressure plants to close, and until the Turkey Point decision it was an open question whether the NRC would approve second 20-year extensions.
The federal go-ahead for Turkey Point comes at an important time for America’s maturing nuclear fleet. The 2010s saw a wave of plant closures, and according to the Nuclear Energy Institute half of U.S. plants would shut down by 2040 without a second extension. Nine are seeking one so far.
If the odds for approval looked long, fewer U.S. power companies would take their chances with the costly renewal process, especially given pressure on the industry from cheap natural gas and subsidized wind and solar in many states. More plants would close and much of that energy would instead be generated by fossil fuels.
The Turkey Point decision doesn’t mean all future applications will pass the NRC’s safety and environmental reviews, but it shows they will be considered. Reactors can now operate safely much longer than originally thought with appropriate upgrades.
Because of the steep regulatory obstacles to building new nuclear plants, continued operation of existing plants is the best bet for keeping nuclear from declining below its current 19% share of U.S. electric power. Environmentalists who say the climate is an existential crisis should be the most pleased at this indication that nuclear energy will stay on the grid.