Nuclear reactors present a very harsh environment for components service. Components within a reactor core must tolerate high temperature water, stress, vibration, and an intense neutron field. Degradation of materials in this environment can lead to reduced performance, and in some cases, sudden failure. A recent EPRI-led study interviewed 47 US nuclear utility executives to gauge perspectives on long-term operation of nuclear reactors. Nearly 90% indicated that extensions of reactor lifetimes to beyond 60 years were likely. When polled on the most challenging issues facing further life extension, two-thirds cited plant reliability as the key issue with materials aging and cable/piping as the top concerns for plant reliability.
Materials degradation within a nuclear power plant is very complex. There are many different types of materials within the reactor itself: over 25 different metal alloys can be found with can be found within the primary and secondary systems, not to mention the concrete containment vessel, instrumentation and control, and other support facilities. When this diverse set of materials is placed in the complex and harsh environment coupled with load, degradation over an extended life is indeed quite complicated. To address this issue, the USNRC has developed a Progressive Materials Degradation Approach (NUREG/CR-6923). This approach is intended to develop a foundation for appropriate actions to keep materials degradation from adversely impacting component integrity and safety and identify materials and locations where degradation can reasonably be expected in the future.
Clearly, materials degradation will impact reactor reliability, availability, and potentially, safe operation. Routine surveillance and component replacement can mitigate these factors, although failures still occur. With reactor life extensions to 60 years or beyond or power uprates, many components must tolerate the reactor environment for even longer times. This may increase susceptibility for most components and may introduce new degradation modes. While all components (except perhaps the reactor vessel) can be replaced, it may not be economically favorable. Therefore, understanding, controlling, and mitigating materials degradation processes are key priorities for reactor operation, power uprate considerations, and life extensions.