Duke Energy to seek longer working lives for Carolinas nuclear power plants

Steam rises from Duke Energy’s Catawba Nuclear station on Lake Wylie.
Steam rises from Duke Energy’s Catawba Nuclear station on Lake Wylie.

Duke Energy will apply for 20-year license renewals for all six of its nuclear power plants in the Carolinas, potentially extending their working lives to eight decades.

The announcement Thursday followed Duke’s pledge earlier this week to cut its carbon dioxide emissions by half by 2030, compared to 2005, and to zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Nuclear power plants don’t directly release carbon dioxide and generate nearly half of Duke’s electricity in the Carolinas.

Duke referred to the carbon-free aspect of the plants, and to their impact on the region’s economy, in announcing its bid to extend their operating lives.

“These plants generate clean and cost-effective power, provide thousands of well-paying jobs, and produce substantial economic benefits for the Carolinas,” chief nuclear officer Preston Gillespie said in a statement. “Renewing the licenses of these plants is important for our customers, communities and environment.”

Continuing to operate aging plants is considerably easier than building massively expensive new ones.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2016 granted Duke licenses to build two nuclear reactors near Gaffney, S.C., at a then-estimated cost of $11 billion, but the company has not moved forward with construction. Duke also canceled a contract for a new nuclear plant in Florida.

Growth in demand for electricity had stagnated, and other utilities building nuclear plants in South Carolina and Georgia struggled with cost overruns and missed deadlines. Two South Carolina utilities, state-owned Santee Cooper and SCE&G, spent billions of dollars to build two new reactors at the Summer nuclear plant before ending construction in 2017.

Duke said that extending the operating lives of its nuclear plants might delay the need for new power plants. The company added that new nuclear technology, such as small modular reactors, “is an option the industry should continue to explore.”

The NRC cleared the way for utilities to apply for second license renewals in 2014. Three companies have applications under review.

The oldest of Duke’s Carolinas nuclear plants, Robinson in Hartsville, S.C., began operating in 1971. Robinson and five other nuclear plants worked through their initial 40-year federal licenses and were granted 20-year extensions.

Those extensions expire between 2030 and 2046. If the NRC grants second license extensions, some of Duke’s nuclear fleet could operate until as late as 2066.

In addition to Robinson, Duke has the McGuire nuclear plant on Lake Norman; Catawba on South Carolina’s Lake Wylie; Oconee, the largest of the plants, in Seneca, S.C.; Brunswick near Southport; and Harris southwest of Raleigh. All began operating in the early 1970s to mid-1980s. The six plants have a total of 11 reactors, which are individually licensed.

The NRC, in considering the license extensions, will require detailed evaluations of the plants’ ability to continue safely operating. Each application review is expected to take about 18 months.

Duke said it does not expect any of its six plants to need significant modifications in order to win second license extensions, citing preventive maintenance and previous technology upgrades.

Duke expects to file its first application, for Oconee, in 2021.

About 5,000 employees work in Duke’s nuclear group, not including contract workers who help refuel and maintain the plants. Duke said it paid more than $300 million in property and payroll taxes associated with the nuclear plants in 2018.