Nuclear Power – Getting more from our fleet (without new construction)
In recent years, the U.S. Nuclear fleet has not grown, but the amount of electricity that it provides has. Today, plant operators are looking to get even more power out of our reactors, using new technologies that might increase the maximum power level that nuclear power plants can achieve. By “uprating” the country’s nuclear power plants, we might be able to get more from our fleet, without new construction.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, the amount of electricity (kWh’s) has more than doubled in the past 30 years, with a more than 6% increase in the last decade. On average, U.S. nuclear plants run with a 90% capacity factor – meaning that they run 90% (almost 329 days) of the year. In 1980, this value was 55% (201 days per year). While it is unlikely that we will increase our capacity factors much higher than their current 90% level (the plants need maintenance downtime), there is an opportunity in increasing the amount of electricity that they can generate when they are running.
“Uprates” refer to increasing the maximum power (kilowatts – kW) that a plant can achieve. By increasing this maximum, plants can generate more electricity in the same amount of time. In other words, we can get more electricity without building new nuclear power plants.
This increase in power comes with a bonus – in many situations, license renewals for these nuclear power plants require that technology be upgraded. This requirement can make uprating a plant affordable, with relatively little extra incremental cost. According to Excelon Nuclear, this incremental cost is about half of the amount needed to build a new equivalent facility.
From May 2008 to May 2010, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved nine plant uprate applications. It expects to receive 39 more applications over the next five years, as nuclear power plants file to renew their operating licenses.
For information on the technologies used to uprate nuclear power plants, see this article, which discusses optimization and efficiency improvements that are possible with currently available technology.