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A Dynamic Programming Model of U.S. Nuclear Power Plant Operations


  • Geoffrey Rothwell

    (Department of Economics, Stanford University)

  • John Rust

    (Department of Economics, University of Wisconsin)


This paper presents a dynamic programming (DP) model of an electric utility's optimal policy for operating a nuclear power plant (NPP). The utility chooses the level of capacity utilization of the NPP as a function of signals about the NPP's current operating state. In each period the utility must determine whether or not to operate the reactor, or shut it down for preventive maintenance or refueling, or to permanently close the plant. Maintenance performed during periodic refueling outages partially ``regenerates'' the NPP, reducing the risk of unplanned forced outages in succeeding periods. Using monthly data on U.S. NPPs in the post-TMI era we estimate parameters of the utility's profit function, the failure processes that lead to unplanned forced outages, and the parameters governing the duration of refueling outages. These parameters imply an endogenous distribution of operating spells and capacity utilization levels that depend on the NPP's age, signals the operator receives about the NPP's current operating state, and the duration since last refueling. The estimates of the DP model reveal that utilities appear responsive to NRC regulation insofar as they impute a very high cost to unplanned and forced outages. Utilities are also highly averse to causing unnecessary wear and tear on their NPP's caused by stop/start operation of their NPP's including planned and unplanned outages. Overall, the DP model yields very accurate predictions of nuclear power generation including the impact of the relatively rare event of NPP decommissionings.

Suggested Citation

  • Geoffrey Rothwell & John Rust, 1995. "A Dynamic Programming Model of U.S. Nuclear Power Plant Operations," Microeconomics 9502001, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised 06 Feb 1995.
  • Handle: RePEc:wpa:wuwpmi:9502001
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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Rust, John, 1987. "Optimal Replacement of GMC Bus Engines: An Empirical Model of Harold Zurcher," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 55(5), pages 999-1033, September.
    2. Rothwell, Geoffrey, 1990. "Utilization and service : Decomposing nuclear reactor capacity factors," Resources and Energy, Elsevier, vol. 12(3), pages 215-229, September.
    3. Dubin, Jeffrey A. & Rothwell, Geoffrey S., 1989. "Risk and reactor safety systems adoption," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 42(2), pages 201-218, October.
    4. David, Paul A. & Rothwell, Geoffrey S., 1996. "Measuring standardization: An application to the American and French nuclear power industries," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 12(2), pages 291-308, September.
    5. Rothwell, Geoffrey, 1996. "Organizational Structure and Expected Output at Nuclear Power Plants," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 78(3), pages 482-488, August.
    6. David, Paul A & Maude-Griffin, Roland & Rothwell, Geoffrey, 1996. "Learning by Accident? Reductions in the Risk of Unplanned Outages in U.S. Nuclear Power Plants after Three Mile Island," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 13(2), pages 175-198, September.
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    Cited by:

    1. John Rust & Geoffrey Rothwell, 1995. "Optimal Response to Shift in Regulatory Regime: the Case of the U.S. Nuclear Power Industry," Industrial Organization 9508002, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    2. Rothwell, Geoffrey & Rust, John, 1997. "On the Optimal Lifetime of Nuclear Power Plants," Journal of Business & Economic Statistics, American Statistical Association, vol. 15(2), pages 195-208, April.
    3. Jonathan E. Leightner, 2001. "Maintenance," Journal of Applied Economics, Universidad del CEMA, vol. 4, pages 107-124, May.
    4. Francis X. Diebold, 1998. "The Past, Present, and Future of Macroeconomic Forecasting," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 12(2), pages 175-192, Spring.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • D1 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior
    • D2 - Microeconomics - - Production and Organizations
    • D3 - Microeconomics - - Distribution
    • D4 - Microeconomics - - Market Structure, Pricing, and Design


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