MIT Study Offers New Perspectives on Nuclear Energy

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Publication date: 
29 October 2010

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.