22 Nuclear Power Industry Response to Materials Degradation — A Critical Review
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In the 1960s, nuclear power for electricity production was one of the greatest future economic promises, both in the United States and internationally. Electricity “too cheap to meter” was the claim, and US utilities and supplier corporations jumped in wholeheartedly. Yet 50 years later, the industry is just pulling out of decades-long doldrums. No new nuclear plants have gone on line in the United States for over 30 years. All US Nuclear Steam System Suppliers (NSSSs) are either foreign owned or have major overseas partners, and we no longer have the domestic infrastructure and capacity to produce the components needed for new plants. The current nuclear fleet, although operating safely and economically, generates only about 20% of US electricity. Given shortages of domestic fossil fuels and concerns about greenhouse gases and global warming, not taking greater advantage of this United States—developed energy resource defies logic.
What happened? And what can the industry do to keep this from reoccurring during the current reemergence of nuclear power as a major clean energy source of the future? Many of the problems were no doubt political and beyond the scope of this technical article. Yet most were self-inflicted, many of them related to component mechanical and structural integrity that can and should be avoided in the future, if we can learn from the lessons of the past.
The purpose of this article is to highlight the issues that the authors have personally seen and been involved in, as engineers and technical managers in the nuclear industry for over 40 years. The authors' backgrounds combine employment at major nuclear vendors during the formative days of the industry, plus utility engineering perspective provided by a co-author who was a utility participant and ultimately chairman of the industry's generic Materials Reliability Program. The article looks retrospectively at the root causes of these problems, itemizes the lessons learned, and recommends an approach going forward that will anticipate and hopefully prevent the industry from repeating these mistakes in the future.