Many of the country's 104 nuclear reactors are getting old. Built during the great bandwagon market of the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, they were originally licensed to run for 40 years. That means that a plant built in 1971 has to get relicensed this year to continue operation. In recent years, every single plant that's applied to keep running has received approval. A key nuclear industry argument has been that the plants were never really designed to stop running after 40 years. That number was simply a financial construction. It represented "how long it was expected to take to pay off construction loans."
As part of a year-long investigation, highlighted by BoingBoing's Maggie Koerth-Baker today, the AP's Jeff Donn took the nuclear industry to task. That 40-year operational lifespan? It was a real thing and the nuclear engineers who built the plants believed they would only operate for their designated lifespans. That squares with my recollections from reading nuclear history, though I didn't focus extensively on this particular corner of the energy debate.
Now, let's say the AP is right and the nuclear plants weren't meant to run for longer than 40 years. I still don't think that's a reason not to relicense them. For one, the electricity that older nuclear plants produce is some of the cheapest in the nation's electricity system. And they are certainly the cheapest low-carbon electricity. As nuclear industry folks have pointed out to me before, many of these plants have had massive numbers of their components replaced over the last decades, too. So, perhaps these are like used cars with new brakes, wheels, struts, a transmission, and new upholstery. As long as the engine runs, you can count on the car working for longer than you would otherwise.
That said, this is exactly the sort of thing that gets the nuclear industry in trouble. If the real history is that the plants weren't intended to run for more than 40 years, but their people are convinced they can continue to be safely operated, they should just say that. Because what the nuclear industry needs more than anything is the trust of the American people that they are being straight up. If they lost a couple of relicensing battles in the process, then so be it. That would be a good trade for the increased credibility that comes with strictly sticking to the truth.