There are 104 operating nuclear reactors in the US. All are creating precious raw energy. However, the 56 plants that have operating licenses expiring within the next 12 years are the most interesting.
Many of these plants are on the energy-demanding East Coast needless to say, they can't just close down. So the plant operators have to take some important and expensive actions to keep these plants up and running. Actions that can and will make companies loads of profit.
These companies will be booking contracts and locking in profits for the next 12 years! Just read what one CEO said about some recent opportunities:
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"With electricity demand on the rise, the value of nuclear power technology as the most efficient and environmentally friendly source of energy available today is clearly being reassessed. With our broad range of core competencies in engineering, analysis, manufacturing and testing, we are well positioned to take advantage of additional opportunities for construction projects in the U.S."
The complex world of nuclear equipment
Imagine how many hundreds of thousands of components go into a gigantic nuclear plant. This includes everything from wire bundles and circuit boards to valves and switches and massive steel vessels that are the size of a large house.
Really, every nuclear reactor is an incredibly complex system of systems. There is a giant containment dome that isolates a nuclear core. The core is part of a system that heats water. The hot water exchanges heat with another fluid. The heated fluid turns a turbine. The turbine generates electric power. Regulating systems control the power that gets distributed into the outside grid. For all the heat and power, there has to be a way to cool things down on command, as well.
Over time, the nuclear core bombards the nearby metal and equipment with radiation. Plus, the heating and cooling cycles take a toll on equipment and machinery. Thus, the metal in some components becomes brittle. So periodically, equipment and components have to be repaired or replaced. There is nothing fast, easy or cheap about performing work on a nuclear power plant.
All in all, inside a nuclear plant, there is a vast array of shielding and valves and piping and wiring and switches and control units. All of this suffers from wear and tear over time. There is a massive library of technical specifications, training manuals, training and safety systems and much more to make the whole thing run. And every nuclear plant has a small army of highly trained technical personnel, as well as security forces.
So as you can imagine, almost every component of a nuclear plant has to be "certified" in some way or another. That is, anything and everything that is even remotely close to the "nuclear containment" zone must meet the highest level of specifications. This is for safety purposes, of course.
A licence to profit
How can anyone keep track of all of this? It is certainly not easy. But every nuclear reactor is licensed by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC issues a licence to operate only if the operator can demonstrate that it has figured out how to account for all of the systems, training, personnel requirements and everything else that you need to run a safe plant.
Under provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, the NRC issues licences for commercial power reactors to operate for up to 40 years. Then the NRC may renew the licences for up to another 20 years. Why 40 years? Congress selected a 40-year licence term on the basis of economic and antitrust considerations, not technical limitations. Even after 40 years, there's a lot of life left in a well-maintained nuclear plant.
Still, licensing and re-licensing are complex processes. The NRC-mandated paperwork extends to hundreds of thousands of pages, even millions of pages in some instances. The technical specifications are just mind-boggling. Many of the pipes and welds, as well as other metal objects, have to be X-rayed and inspected for quality.
Most US nuclear power plants were designed in the 1960s and 1970s. Most plants were built in the 1970s, or completed in the 1980s. After the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 when there was a partial loss of nuclear containment new plant licensing in the U.S. came to an abrupt halt. Many plants under construction went on to be completed. But due to public and political concerns about nuclear power, there has been almost nothing in the way of new nuclear design or construction activity for the past 30 years.
Indeed, due to the lack of business in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, many nuclear equipment vendors just closed their doors. The ones that haven't closed, basically, have a licence to profit
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