MIT Study: Japan Crisis to Have Consequences for All Aspects of Nuclear Power

The nuclear crisis at Fukushima Daiichi could increase costs for existing and future nuclear power plants, increase scrutiny on relicensing procedures, and cause a reevaluation of the entire spent fuel management system, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said as they released a comprehensive report on the future of the nuclear fuel cycle.

A summary of the report, The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” had been released last September. Although the full MIT Energy Initiative 253-page interdisciplinary study does not factor in the severe consequences of the Fukushima crisis, it strongly recommends that an interim solution be developed to remove spent fuel from storage facilities at reactor sites and move it to regional, medium-term repositories where the fuel can be monitored and protected as it decays over time.

The Japanese crisis—caused by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami—was significantly worsened by the presence of used fuel housed in the reactor buildings. Those events demonstrated the urgency needed in dealing with waste, the report’s authors said at a press conference announcing the release of the report.

It would take some time to investigate and fully understand the progression of events at the Fukushima reactors and spent fuel pools, but it was clear that the incident would have several consequences for the nuclear sector, the authors said.

One consequence is that costs will likely increase for existing and future nuclear plants. “For example, requirements for on-site spent fuel management may increase and design basis threats may be elevated,” they said. “While events beyond the design basis accidents are routinely considered in the U.S. licensing procedures, their importance may also increase.” The report also points out that “some erosion of recent gains in public acceptance of expanded nuclear power can be anticipated.”

Other consequences include increased scrutiny for licensing of older reactors. “Indeed, some of the license extensions already granted for more than 60 of the 104 operating U.S. reactors could be revisited. This may not affect the anticipated sixty-year lifetime for new plants (which rely much more on passive safety systems). Our fuel cycle analyses incorporated such sixty-year operating lifetimes for current and future nuclear power plants,” the report says.

The entire spent-fuel management system—on-site storage, consolidated long-term storage, and geological disposal—will also likely be reevaluated because of the Fukushima storage pool experience. “Our view that [spent nuclear fuel (SNF)] storage has been something of an afterthought in U.S. fuel cycle policy has been brought into sharper relief, and there could be a renewed impetus to move SNF away from reactor sites to consolidated storage and disposal,” the report says.

Although the situation in Japan has not changed any of the basic conclusions of the study, the study’s executive director, Charles Forsberg, a research scientist in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, said the recent crisis “will place more emphasis on getting a geological repository program up and running” for permanent storage of the United States’ spent nuclear fuel. Doing so, the study says, faces no real scientific hurdles and is essentially a social and political issue at this point.

Sources: POWERnews, MIT

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