Safe operation of nuclear power plants is a prime goal of the nuclear power generation industry, as well as the federal government. Toward that end, the U.S. Dept. of Energy is working with its laboratories and the utility industry in its Nuclear Energy Plant Optimization (NEPO) Program.

Research is based on a Joint DOE-EPRI Strategic R&D Plan to optimize U. S. nuclear power plants. The goal of the NEPO program is to ensure that current nuclear plants can continue to deliver adequate and affordable energy supplies up to and beyond their initial license period by resolving critical issues related to long-term plant aging and by developing advanced technologies to improve plant reliability, availability and productivity. NEPO R&D is categorized into Aging Management and Generation Optimization areas.

Aging Management R&D is aimed at understanding, characterizing and managing or mitigating effects of plant aging on key plant components, such as reactor pressure vessels and vessel internals, steam generators, electric cables, primary system piping and safety-related concrete structures. Component and structural material degradation occurs in nuclear plants as a result of long-term operation and exposure of materials to harsh environmental conditions. NEPO R&D will provide a better understanding of degradation mechanisms and how they occur, enabling development of cost-effective aging management strategies to prevent, detect or repair the effects of degradation.

Nondestructive examination (NDE) plays a major role in monitoring the performance of pressure vessels and auxiliary components. National (as well as international) professional and research organizations are working on many areas related to the inspection, flaw evaluation and repair of in-service pressure equipment in response to industry needs in the area of evaluating the integrity and remaining life of aging plant equipment. For example, scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Wash., have been conducting research for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the area of advanced ultrasonic imaging inspection techniques to detect and characterize anomalies in nuclear reactor pressure vessels (see article on page 47).

Current nuclear plants were designed and are operating with technology developed over twenty-five years ago. As these nuclear plants age, components and parts degrade or become obsolete, introducing inefficiencies, added costs and reduced reliability. Generation Optimization R&D includes development and demonstration of technologies to optimize the power output from existing nuclear power plants such as technologies needed to replace obsolete analog equipment, advance nuclear fuel performance, quantify risks and address human performance issues. This objective focuses on improving the long-term economic performance of current plants through development of technologies that will improve equipment reliability, lower operating costs, and increase power output while maintaining high levels of safety.

While there may always be foes of nuclear power for various reasons, the bottom line is that R&D efforts such as in the NEPO program will continue to reinforce the benefits of safe, clean nuclear energy.