A new study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative (MITEI) concludes that uranium supplies will not limit growth of the nuclear industry, contrary to a view that has prevailed for decades.

The new study suggests an alternative to storing used nuclear on site, disposing of it underground, or reprocessing it to yield new reactor fuel: an enriched uranium-initiated breeder reactor in which additional natural or depleted uranium is added to the reactor core at the same rate nuclear materials are consumed. “No excess nuclear materials are produced. This is a much simpler and more efficient self-sustaining fuel cycle,” the institute said in a statement announcing the report on Thursday.

The report titled “The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle” is latest in a series of broad-based MITEI studies of different aspects of energy. It was funded by the Electric Power Research Institute, Idaho National Laboratory, Nuclear Energy Institute, Areva, GE-Hitachi, Westinghouse, Energy Solutions, and Nuclear Assurance Corp.

The study was necessary because of the “continuing importance of nuclear power as a low-carbon option that could be deployed at a scale that is material for mitigating climate change risk, namely, global deployment at the Terawatt scale by mid-century,” the report says.

A reexamination of fuel cycle options
The study refutes expectations that a closed fuel cycle based on plutonium startup of fast reactors will eventually be deployed. “Our reexamination of fuel cycles suggests that there are many more viable fuel cycle options and that the optimum choice among them faces great uncertainty—some economic, such as the cost of advanced reactors, some technical such as implications for waste management, and some societal, such as the scale of nuclear power deployment and
the management of nuclear proliferation risks,” it says.

While it concludes that greater clarity should emerge over the next few decades, the report stresses that options be preserved and work be continued on the open fuel cycle, on implementing a system for managed light water reactor (LWR) spent fuel storage, on developing a geological repository, and on researching technology alternatives.

One reason the study came to such different conclusions from previous research is because it looked at the various components—from mining to reactor operation to waste disposal—holistically, said Mujid Kazimi, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at MIT and co-chair of the study. “When you look at the whole thing together, you start seeing things that were not obvious before,” he says.

“There has been very little research on the fuel cycle for about 30 years,” explained Charles Forsberg, MIT research scientist in nuclear engineering and executive director of the study. “People hadn’t gone back and looked at the underlying assumptions.”

Key findings
In this study, Kazimi says, “what we found was that, at any reasonable expected growth of nuclear power over this century, the availability of uranium will not be a constraint.”

The report also concludes that in the U.S., significant changes are needed in the planning and implementation of spent-fuel storage and disposal options, including the creation of a new quasi-governmental body to oversee the process. Planning for how to deal with the spent fuel should be closely integrated with studies of the optimal fuel cycle, the authors suggest.

The report strongly recommends that interim storage of spent nuclear fuel for a century or so, preferably in regional consolidated sites, is the best option. This allows the fuel to cool, and most importantly preserves future fuel-cycle choices to eventually send the fuel to a geological repository or reprocess it for energy resource and/or waste-management benefits. The optimal choice will reflect future conditions, such as the scale of nuclear-power deployment and the state of technology and its costs.

The report also strongly supports the present U.S. government policy of providing loan guarantees for the first several new nuclear plants to be built under newly revised licensing rules. Positive experience with “first-mover” plants—the first of these new U.S. plants built after the current long hiatus—could reduce or eliminate financing premiums for nuclear-plant construction. Once those premiums are eliminated, Forsberg says, “we think nuclear power is economically competitive” with coal power.

Sources: MIT, POWERnews