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.
IN PICTURES: Nuclear power around the world
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
"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. …