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 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.
The economics of nuclear power was also a major focus of the report. To prime the pump and give investors greater confidence that nuclear plants can be viable, it recommends pushing ahead with federal loan guarantees to build seven to 10 nuclear power plants.
But such government support "should not be extended" beyond that first group, the study says. That recommendation runs counter to moves in Congress to extend federal loan guarantees for nuclear plant construction beyond the $54.5 billion sought by the Obama administration. Some 27 applications for permits to build new plants have been made – but no construction has begun.
"We believe that nuclear energy should be able to compete on the open market as should other energy options," the report states. Even so, nuclear power will have a hard time competing with traditional fossil fuels like coal and natural gas unless "a modest price on carbon dioxide emissions is imposed," the study says.
Some criticized the report's findings, saying it failed to consider the full range of alternatives to costly nuclear plants and radioactive waste, including renewable energy and energy efficiency.
The fundamental problem of getting nuclear construction going is not just investor uncertainty over the cost of the first power plants, as the MIT report suggests, says Mark Cooper, a senior fellow for economic analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. It is, instead, what he calls the long-term escalation of nuclear power's cost structure that makes it both a poor alternative to fight global warming and uncompetitive with other renewable fuels.
The cost estimates for new reactors that are cited in the MIT study are too low – about $4,000 per kilowatt of capacity, well below the $5,000 to $6,000 per kilowatt that utilities use to calculate these costs, says Dr. Cooper. Some independent estimates put new nuclear construction as high as $10,000 per kilowatt of capacity – well above the cost for wind power, he notes.
With its price declining, natural gas now has a significant cost advantage over nuclear. Indeed, indications are that nuclear power will have a tough time competing in the energy marketplace unless Congress puts a price on carbon emissions.
In June, Exelon, the largest US nuclear power producer, withdrew its application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build and operate two reactors in Texas. The company is turning instead to natural-gas-fired turbine plants, company officials say.
"We think natural gas will stay cheap for a very long time," John Rowe, Exelon CEO, told Bloomberg last week. "As long as natural gas is anywhere near current price forecasts, you can't economically build a merchant nuclear plant."
IN PICTURES: Nuclear power around the world