Nuclear Power a Viable Competitor in US Energy Market, Study Finds

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High costs of building nuclear power plants may put the industry at a disadvantage to fossil-fuel-burning energy producers, says a study from MIT. But reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, a controversial practice, won't be necessary, it finds.

Uranium will remain abundant and affordable enough to supply the next generation of US nuclear power plants, a new study says, eliminating the need for the industry to reprocess spent fuel and holding open the promise of a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels.

The report, "The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle" from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, expresses confidence that the industry can compete in the energy market with fossil-fuel-burning producers, though it says the industry must still address the issue of nuclear plant construction costs.

Released Thursday, the report also advocates the building of regional waste repositories for radioactive spent fuel to cool for up to a century before permanent disposal below ground. That would leave open the option to use the spent fuel as a resource rather treating it as waste, if new technologies someday allow the remaining fuel to be extracted economically.

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The MIT study also recommends that a new "quasi-government waste management organization" be set up to deal with the complexities and long-term challenge of spent-nuclear-fuel waste management.

To address the dangers of the proliferation of nuclear know-how, the US should set up international fuel leasing agreements instead of promoting fuel reprocessing, the MIT report states. (Independent nuclear experts were buoyed by the report's refusal to endorse near- term reprocessing of spent uranium fuel, saying it would lessen the risk of nuclear proliferation.)

Perhaps the study's most surprising finding is that the global uranium supply is sufficient to fuel a growing number of nuclear plants for decades to come - which would allow the US to avoid embarking on the controversial and costly reprocessing of spent fuel. This finding counters long-held assumptions about the supply.

The researchers say they arrived at that conclusion by looking at all the pieces of the fuel-cycle together -- from mining to how reactors operate to waste disposal.

"When you look at the whole thing together, you start seeing things that were not obvious before," Mujid Kazimi, a professor of nuclear engineering, said in a statement.

At a press conference Thursday, Ernest Moniz, an MIT professor who oversaw the report, acknowledged that uncertainties remain. The advantage of interim above-ground waste storage for a century is that "we really don't know today if spent nuclear fuel from light water reactors is waste, or a resource." Still, he said, a major hurdle has been overcome. "With the misconception that reprocessing is critical to nuclear power growth gone, the US should focus ... on waste management issues," he said.

The finding that reprocessing spent fuel is not needed and should be avoided was immediately hailed by nuclear nonproliferation experts.

"It largely confirms a lot of the points that our organization has been making and - hopefully - should put to rest once and for all the idea of reprocessing fuel or using plutonium fuel in light water reactors," says Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. …