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Idaho National Laboratory – promoter and also umpire for nuclear reactors’ safety

National lab is cheerleader and umpire for reactors’ future Peter Behr, E&E News reporter, SCOVILLE, Idaho — Nuclear power for the grid was born here in 1951, when an experimental reactor’s football-sized core sent current flowing to a quartet of lightbulbs at the isolated government laboratory on Idaho’s southeast desert.

And the nuclear industry’s future may be written here, as well — at least key parts of it — inside the Energy Department’s Idaho National Laboratory testing complex.

INL’s scientists, with colleagues at other DOE labs, are keeping a close watch on the health of the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors, most of them built before the mid-1980s in the flush of excitement about nuclear energy that would be “too cheap to meter,” as an early promoter predicted. How long can the plants keep going before critical steel, concrete and wiring systems are overcome by the aging effects of heat, radiation and mechanical stresses?

And now, with the nuclear industry struggling to compete against low-cost natural gas generation, INL is also stepping up a search for ways to lower reactor operating costs, from research on “accident tolerant” reactor fuels to designing more efficient control rooms and using technology to reduce reactor safety inspection time and costs……..

The NRC has licensed 84 reactors to continue operating beyond the initial 40-year span for an additional 20 years. Nine more relicensing applications are pending, and four reactors are expected to apply, the NRC said……..

The Energy Department’s 2016 report on the reactor longevity campaign notes the potential for damaging surprises. The specialized stainless steel alloys chosen for reactors in the 1960s had many plus factors, DOE said, but concerns, as well. Reactor radiation can add to stress-related corrosion cracking, threatening structural integrity. DOE researchers noted this year that “limited information is known about the long-term performance” of these alloys. Concrete structures have borne thermal shock and radiation, and reactor wiring has lived in harsh environments. Aging issues are “expected to become more severe” as time passes, DOE said.

An essential test process at Idaho and other DOE labs is to bombard sample reactor materials with enormous radiation levels inside test reactors, accelerating stress testing to mimic impacts of operations far beyond 40 years.

“It’s possible plants could run into aging problems that were too expensive to fix, and the operators would decide to shut it down,” Wagner said.

“Nearly all of the fleet will go offline between 2029 and 2055” if plants cannot operate beyond 60 years, Wagner said. “That may seem like a long time away, but it’s really not when you consider replacing that level of assets.”…….https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060063769

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October 18, 2017 - Posted by | politics, safety, USA

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