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INL Helping Extend Nuclear Reactor Lifespan

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

One of the great opportunities as a Senator from Idaho is being able to represent innovative industries and institutions that are leading the charge in tackling some of our nation's most significant challenges.  Expanding our nation's ability to generate the energy we need here at home, thus decreasing our reliance on foreign sources, remains a necessity.  Nuclear power, which provides nearly 20 percent of our total domestic electricity generation, has a critical role in meeting U.S. energy needs.  Researchers at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) are helping find ways to extend the lifespan of our nation's nuclear reactors.  As Congress considers nuclear reactor decommissioning issues, it must advance a national energy policy that seeks to minimize cost by finding ways to extend the life of existing reactors. 

Nuclear power is an essential part of our nation's energy resources, and it maintains a substantial role in energy production around the world.  The U.S. alone is home to 100 nuclear facilities in 30 states.  The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission(NRC) reports that more than 400 nuclear reactors are operating in 31 countries with a total installed capacity of 370,543 megawatts electric.  France single-handedly relies on nuclear power for a noteworthy 75 percent of its electricity generated within the country.   

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, on which I serve, has been considering the issue of nuclear reactor decommissioning and reviewing related legislation.  A key consideration as this issue is considered is that if our nation's nuclear generation infrastructure's lifespan does not exceed 60 years, then we will see a significant drop in domestic energy generated from nuclear power.  This lost energy generation will need to be replaced in a manner that is as cost efficient as possible.    

Idaho is part of the solution.  As the lead nuclear energy laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy, INL helps advance U.S. energy priorities.  This includes managing the Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program.  This cost-shared program between our national labs, industry and universities seeks to address the technical issues related to long-term operation of nuclear power plants.  As technical issues related to plant aging and material performance are answered, nuclear plant operators can go to the NRC for approval to operate for another twenty years.

Additionally, once a reactor is decommissioned, that fuel needs to go somewhere.  We must move forward with waste management and final disposition at Yucca Mountain, the designated national repository for nuclear waste. 

The work being done through the Light Water Reactor Sustainability Program at INL keeps non-carbon emitting electricity production on line at a fraction of the cost of building new nuclear plants.  Recognizing the challenges with commercial nuclear power plant operations beyond 60 years and the important role of nuclear power in our nation's energy portfolio, now, more than ever, Congress must work to reduce costs by instituting energy policy that helps advance efforts to extend the lifespan of existing nuclear reactors.

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