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MIT Study Offers New Perspectives on Nuclear Energy

Richard M. Jones
Number 109 - October 29, 2010  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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An interdisciplinary MIT study offers important new perspectives on many of the long-running issues surrounding the future utilization of nuclear energy in the United States.  In several areas, the report provides the basis for a fundamental rethinking of long-held assumptions about reactor fuel, reactor design, and the disposition of spent nuclear fuel.

“The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle” is the latest of three related studies on nuclear energy issued by MIT.  The study group’s ten members included Mujid Kazimi and Ernest Moniz as the co-chairs and Charles Forsberg as the executive director.  Additional assistance was provided by three contributing authors, eight student research assistants, and a thirteen member advisory committee.  The report’s first chapter provides the study’s overview, conclusions, and recommendations and was released last month; the other ten chapters will be released before the end of the year.  Some of the key findings and recommendations from this chapter follow.

The study’s authors view nuclear power as an important low-carbon option that could be deployed at the Terawatt scale by the middle of this century to reduce climate change risk.  “The viability of nuclear power as a significant energy option for the future depends critically on its economics,” the study concludes.  It calls for an accelerated implementation of a “first mover program of incentives” for seven to ten new plants to demonstrate construction costs.  If operated successfully, this demonstration would eliminate the “financial risk premium” for the construction of new nuclear plants, making the levelized costs for the generation of electricity competitive with that of coal-fired plants.    

The study concludes “there is no shortage of uranium resources that might constrain future commitments to build new nuclear plants for much of this century at least.”  The study determined there was minimal benefit from the limited recycling of mixed oxide fuel in light water reactors for resource extension and waste management.   Of note, the authors conclude:

“For the next several decades, a once through fuel cycle using light water reactors (LWRs) is the preferred economic option for the U.S. and is likely to be the dominant feature of the nuclear energy system in the U.S. and elsewhere for much of this century.  Improvements in light-water reactor designs to increase the efficiency of fuel resource utilization and reduce the cost of future reactor plants should be a principal research and development focus.”

One of the most controversial issues regarding nuclear energy concerns the disposition of spent nuclear fuel.  An important recommendation in this study calls for “long term managed storage” - for perhaps a century - of retrievable spent nuclear fuel in centralized sites while a determination is made if this material should be treated as waste for disposal in a geological site, or a “valuable fuel resources for a future closed fuel cycle.”  The study calls for “the integration of waste management with the design of the fuel cycle.”  Since permanent isolation will be necessary for some of the spent nuclear fuel’s components, the study calls for a “systematic development of a geological repository.”  The report recommends the establishment of a quasi-government waste management organization, and notes “a key decision of successful waste management programs is consistency of science-based decisions.”

The study offers additional findings and recommendations regarding waste management; future nuclear fuel cycles; nonproliferation; and research, development, and demonstration.   The authors estimate that “about $1 B/year is appropriate for supporting the R&D and infrastructure programs.  Additional funding will be needed for large-scale government-industry demonstration projects at the appropriate time.”  

The Executive Summary of the report concludes as follows:

“A key message from our work is that we can and should preserve our options for fuel cycle choices by continuing with the open fuel cycle, implementing a system for managed LWR spent fuel storage, developing a geological repository, and researching technology alternatives appropriate to a range of nuclear energy futures.”

The report can be viewed here

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics