Nuclear plant operators around the world are helping to meet higher demand for electricity by extending the operating lives of plants rather than embarking on the costly and time-consuming process of building new ones, according to a new report.

The cost of operating a Plant Life Extension (PLEX) program is considerably lower than the capital cost of building a new plant, and so is being widely adopted as a way to meet power demand, which is expected to show a compound annual growth rate of 4 percent worldwide between 2012 and 2020, said the report from the U.K.-based business-intelligence group GlobalData.

In the U.S., new nuclear plants typically cost $6 billion to $8 billion, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade association. The high cost often leads operators of existing plants to seek 20-year extensions to the standard 40-year operating license, and those are commonly granted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Extending Plant Lifetime Without Compromising Safety

The industry and regulators are now exploring the feasibility of adding another 20 years to the typical license extension, for a total of 80 years.

Although the idea of an 80-year-old nuclear plant may fuel the fears of nuclear opponents, especially after the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, nuclear plants are subject to continuous maintenance and renewal, said John Keeley, a spokesman for the NEI.

“Often, the only thing that’s 40 years old in a 40-year-old nuclear plant is the license,” Keeley said.

Steven Kraft, Director of Special Projects for NEI, said nuclear plants seeking license extensions are subject to rigorous scrutiny by regulators, whose requirements have increased since Fukushima. “There’s a constant vigil on plant safety,” he said.

The oldest operating U.S. nuclear plant is Oyster Creek in New Jersey, which received its license in 1969.

PLEX is Big Business

The new study, released on April 23, found the United States has more projects to keep aging plants going than any other country. It valued the U.S. PLEX market at $33.66 billion between 2012 and 2020, ahead of France, with a $10.04 billion market.

“Most countries are extending the life of their nuclear plants to avoid investment in building new installations,” the report said.

The U.S. also leads the world in the number of programs to increase the output capacity of nuclear reactors. In the 12 months to May 2011, the NRC approved adding about 295 megawatts to capacity via so-called uprates at 10 nuclear plants.

Among the U.S. uprates is one at Nine Mile Point near Oswego, NY where the NRC has approved a request to increase the capacity of one of the two reactors by 15 percent. At the Crystal River plant in Florida, Progress Energy is due to install a safety system to mitigate inadequate core cooling as part of an uprate program, the study said.

In Asia, operators are planning around $5 billion in plant-life extension programs, led by South Korea, with a $3.73 billion market. Plans for a similar program in Japan were put on hold by the Fukushima disaster. That event also led to the cancellation of many planned plant-extension programs in Europe, where some countries are now phasing out nuclear power from their energy mix, the report said.

Operators are also using a program called Plant Life Management (PLIM) to extend the life of nuclear plants by managing them in a safe and economic way while optimizing their operation.

Just two U.S. nuclear plants are currently under construction. They are the Vogtle plant near Augusta, Georgia, for which the U.S. Department of Energy provided $8.3 billion in loan guarantees, and one in Jenkinsville, South Carolina.