WASHINGTON – Duke Energy has asked federal regulators to renew a 20-year operating license for the utility’s oldest nuclear power plant, which is uniquely vulnerable to potentially catastrophic damage because of its proximity to a nearby dam.
Duke has filed with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, seeking an extension that would keep the Oconee Nuclear Station running until 2054. The South Carolina facility first came online in 1973. If the license request is denied, the plant would still be allowed to operate until 2033, according to the NRC’s website.
The three-reactor plant is about 30 miles west of Greenville, S.C., and roughly 12 miles downstream from the 385-foot tall, Jocassee Dam, also owned and operated by Duke.
In 2019 Duke said it plans to seek similar 20-year operating extensions for all 11 of its reactors at six sites in the Carolinas, according to the Greenville News.
In the wake of the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, in 2011, the NRC asked U.S. power companies that operate nuclear plants to assess the risks their facilities could face if a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, were to damage a nearby dam or somehow cause significant flooding around the reactors.
The situation at the Oconee plant, as well as others close to dams, so concerned some officials at the NRC that an internal report warned the reactors could be jeopardized by major floods. It also warned that a dam failure could cause reactor meltdowns far worse than at Fukushima, where an earthquake-triggered tsunami caused a near-complete meltdown of its three reactors.
At the request of the NRC, Duke did make several modifications at the Oconee plant between 2013 and 2016, including erecting “armoring embankments” to prevent erosion from flooding and elevating some transmission lines that rest above the floodplain, according to a 2018 report by U.S. PIRG, Environment America and the Frontier Group.
“Whatever steps Duke took to address concerns by federal regulators doesn’t mean the nuclear plant is somehow impervious to serious damage, should the dam fail,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “The fact is this dam, and many others in the Carolinas, are regularly breached by heavy rainfall due to hurricanes and tropical storms, and those events are only increasing in intensity each year.”
Since the 2012 NRC report, the Carolinas have been ravaged by hurricanes, including Hurricane Florence, in 2018, which caused more than $24 billion in damages. At least a dozen dams in South Carolina failed as Florence made landfall. Since 2015, according to reporting by The State newspaper, “more than 80 state-regulated dams have failed during hurricanes and floods that smashed into eastern and central South Carolina.”
The climate crisis is contributing to the increased intensity of hurricanes. A 2020 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed satellite images going back to 1979 that show global warming has led to a greater likelihood that hurricanes will develop into a Category 3 or higher storm.
“Instead of pushing the NRC to extend the plant’s lifecycle, Duke should be investing heavily in solar and other safe, renewable energy sources,“ said Cook. “Clinging to nuclear has cost the company and its ratepayers billions to keep Oconee and other plants operating, and only prolongs the chances of a Fukushima-style disaster.”
Keeping Oconee in operation for another 30 years won’t be cheap. Within just the past decade, reports The Post and Courier, Duke has spent $2 billion in upgrades to keep the three units at the plant running.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.