An MIT team issued a report on the nuclear fuel cycle yesterday, the third report the university has issued in recent years on aspects of our nuclear future. The report's most striking finding--and one that contradicts a lot of conventional wisdom--is that there's plenty enough uranium to power a nuclear renaissance, even a quite vigorous one. Just as important, as leaders of the team emphasized in a press event yesterday, since fuel costs account for only 2-4 percent of total nuclear electricity generating costs, even a big increase in uranium costs would have only a minor impact on electricity prices.
MIT guesses that even if the global nuclear enterprise expanded by a factor of 10 in this century and all the reactors operated for 100 years, uranium prices would increase only by about half.
In light of that crucial finding, and other circumstances, the report's attitude toward current-generation and next-generation reactors is a little puzzling. Though costs of improved light-water reactors have escalated sharply, with little new demand for them anywhere except East Asia and perhaps India, the report continues to regard them as the "workhorse" of the industry, as a team leader put it yesterday, giving little attention to novel designs for small modular reactors that are under development (such as those Spectrum magazine highlights in its current issue).
A dozen or so years ago, when Ernest J. Moniz was serving as research director in the Clinton Administration's Department of Energy, I asked him for Spectrum why the industry was so slow to develop novel reactor designs. He said it was setting its headlights too low. I took that to mean that Moniz thought more technological ambition was called for.
Yet Moniz (pictured above) was cochairman of the team that produced the MIT fuel cycle report, which shows so little vision about new reactor technology.
This goes especially for fast-breeder technology: MIT treats it as if it were still a plausible candidate for an end-of-century nuclear economy. But why would we need breeders if there's plenty of uranium to go around to fuel conventional reactors for at least a century?
Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council pointed out yesterday that the cost of recovering nuclear fuel from spent fuel--whether for use in light-water or breeder reactors--has increased by an order of magnitude in real dollar terms since 1970. The MIT team did not contradict him. But why then would one want to build breeders, which depend on nuclear fuel recycling, now shown to be excessively costly?
MIT's attitude is all the more baffling when one takes into account the history of fast breeder development since the 1960s. Of the major reactor demonstration projects, including France's once-touted Superphenix, not a single one has satisfied expectations. Some have been disasters. None can be called a success.
So where is the fast breeder reactor, and why would one want to operate it, that MIT persists in visualizing for the late 21st century?
It often is argued in nuclear industry circles that reprocessing and recycling of nuclear fuels is needed to alleviate waste disposal problems, even if there is no need for recovered fissile material to power breeder or conventional reactors. But the MIT report also takes a notably sanguine view of what generally seems an intractable dilemma, especially in the United States. Leaders of the team said that geological storage is a sound approach, and in fact that all the approaches to storage are satisfactory--at reactor sites, dry cask storage at interim facilities, and long-term semi-permanent but retrievable geologic disposition.
Nor is a final resolution of the waste problem as urgent as it may appear. "Every country that has examined the problem has concluded that spent fuel should be temporarily stored for 46-60 years [for its reactivity to diminish] before being put into a final repository," said one team member. Thereafter, a repository like Yucca would be filled over a period of perhaps 30 years and then kept open for at least 50 years after that, for ventilation and possible retrieval of spent fuel.