The True Lifespan of a Nuclear Power Plant

Though nuclear plants are theoretically engineered to operate safely for 40 years—their initial permit life—our analysis of the overall record of US commercial nuclear plants shows that almost two dozen reactors were shut down long before their license/design life expired.


Nuclear Plant Closure Chart

Among plants built before 1973, fully HALF did not make it to 40 years, or much beyond that, before closing down. Some of these shutdowns were for economic reasons, but in most cases the plants simply wore out, broke down, or never functioned properly. This record of failure can be viewed in our plant closure chart

In addition to normal industrial wear-and-tear, nuclear plants have the unique and often irreparable liability of having their components continually exposed to varying levels of radiation. Over time, this embrittles and/or corrodes the infrastructure (metal components in particular) and will eventually lead to structural failure (hopefully not catastrophic!)

The most common point of failure occurs in the steam generators. Nuclear steam generators are composed of thousands of small tubes that corrode and crack, leading to radioactive water leaks into the secondary cooling system and the environment. Some plants have had their steam generators replaced at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, while many others simply closed in the face of the expense. This issue has been detected at the Seabrook plant, though it’s unclear how far the damage has progressed.

While most operational plants older than Seabrook have already received 20-year license renewals, several announced their closing shortly after obtaining these very extensions. Most recently announced closures, including Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim in our region and Fort Calhoun and Palisades in the Midwest, have come just a few years after their license renewals.

NOT ONE nuclear plant in the world has made it to 50 years of operation, let alone the 60 years that NRC claims they are capable of.

View our nuclear plant closure chart to get an idea of the actual lifespan of nuclear power plants and why they are shut down.