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The Nuclear Conundrum [Chart]

The Nuclear Conundrum [Chart]

The Nuclear Conundrum [Chart]

Median age of all operating nuclear reactors is 28.8 years and counting.

The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.

The nuclear sector today certainly has its immediate challenges. Costs had already been a long problem, but the incident at Fukushima complicated matters even further. The industry and regulators were forced to take a second look at its safety practices and plant designs, creating uncertainty for the sector. As of today, 2006 still remains a peak for global nuclear power generation in terms of total output, and it has steadily declined since then.

There is also another creeping issue for the industry that is raising eyebrows. According to The World Nuclear Report, there are 391 nuclear reactors in operation throughout the world. However, the median age of these reactors is now 28.8 years, due to the majority of power plants being built between 1970 and 1985.

The design specifications for most nuclear reactors envision an operating lifespan of 30 to 40 years. In the U.S. specifically, nuclear utilities are initially licensed for 40 years. Near the end of that initial timeframe, they can apply for an additional 20 years.

While there are many experts who believe that older reactors are not a problem, it is hard to imagine many families feeling safe living next to aging nuclear reactors. Furthermore, with recent evens, even more questions have surfaced about the wisdom of keeping aging reactors plugged into the grid. The Fukushima Daiichi units (1 to 4) were first commissioned between 1971 and 1974, and the license for the first unit had been extended for another 10 years in February 2011. This was just a month before the disaster took place.

Right now, most operators are doing what they can to extend the life of their reactors. However, at some point it won’t be enough.

This brings us to a challenging fork in the road: will we move forward with a fleet of aging reactors, or will we bite the bullet to build new ones? If we decommission them without replacement, how will that power supply be replaced?

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