The Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey opened when the Beatles were still together, and since 1969 its single 645-MW boiling-water reactor has provided enough energy to power 600,000 homes annually. But the oldest nuclear plant in the U.S. will be retired a little early. Last year its owner, Exelon, announced that it would close Oyster Creek in 2019, 10 years ahead of schedule. The reason: the aging plant costs too much to keep running safely.
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has focused new attention on the troubled future of the American atomic sector. But the U.S. nuclear industry was already facing a very old problem: its aging fleet of reactors. Nuclear plants were built with 40-year licenses that can theoretically be extended to 60 or even 80 years. Half the country's 104 reactors are more than 30 years old and reaching middle age. So far, 62 plants have been granted 20-year extensions, and 20 more have applications pending. But like the one in Fukushima, the oldest plants in the U.S. tend to have fewer safety measures. If regulators crack down, operators could decide--as Exelon did with Oyster Creek--that upgrading is not worth the cost and shut down the plants. If no new nuclear plants are built to replace them, nuclear could fade into obsolescence. Ironically, that could have negative environmental effects. A report by the Breakthrough Institute, an energy think tank, found that replacing all U.S. nuclear with a mix of coal and gas would raise carbon emissions 9% by 2030. "We need to understand that there would be consequences to pulling back on nuclear," says Michael Levi, a senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. Like a great athlete, nuclear power may be missed after it retires.