The commercial development of spent fuel reprocessing and fast reactors by other nations will leave the U.S. behind

yellowcakeSMAn MIT study finds no shortage of uranium for nuclear energy, but recommends against recycling spent nuclear fuel. Instead, scientists at the prestigious university call for a sustained R&D program worth nearly $700 million a year. That's some sandbox.

Meanwhile, David Jones, Vice President of Used Fuel Management at Areva, argues that recycling spent nuclear fuel is a proven solution that is cost competitive and reduces proliferation concerns.

And Stephen Turner, an expert on spent nuclear fuel, told this blog Sept 21 that U.S. private industry will not wait for the U.S. government to make up its mind. Speaking at the annual meeting of the National Fabrication Consortium held in Cleveland, he said:

“These firms have developed the business case for spent fuel reprocessing. They will pull the pin when the market is ready.”

Confirming Turner’s view, Areva’s Jones told this blog the firm wants to build an 800 ton/year plant.

Conservative is not a challenge

The MIT study claims to "challenge conventional assumptions" about nuclear energy, but, in fact, it is very conservative in its findings. It says the U.S. is in no hurry to solve the problem of disposal of high level radioactive waste nor should it rush into investments in fast reactors. It recommends against any investment in recycling spent nuclear fuel.

Studies like this hit the desks of policy makers in Washington, like the current Blue Ribbon Commission, with a big impact. The reason is they are filling a vacuum created by Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who shot down the Yucca Mountain project as the price for his support of the Obama Administration's legislative initiatives. As a result there is no policy for spent fuel in Washington.

Getting back to the wide-ranging recommendations of the report, it addresses economics, current and future fuel cycles, waste management, nonproliferation, and an ambitious R&D program. Highlights include:

  • Eliminate financial risk premiums for 7-10 new reactors to keep the price under $4,000/kw. Once they are built, assuming they come in on time/budget, future reactors will be cost competitive with coal and natural gas.
  • Keep the once-through fuel cycle using LWR reactors for the rest of this century.
  • Develop a central disposal site for spent nuclear fuel with a transition period of 50-100 years. Establish a quasi-government firm to take over management of spent fuel.
  • Invest in R&D at the rate of $700 million/year for up to 50 years to determine if fast reactors, or anything else, can be designed that make economic sense.

Where has the U.S. been the past 20 years?

Charles Forsberg, one of the scientists on the MIT team, said in a statement there has been very little research on the fuel cycle for the past 30 years. Considering that Massachusetts Senator John Kerry led the effort in the Senate to close out funding for the Integral Fast Reactor, that remark shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.

Ernest Moniz, another member of the MIT panel, was an Undersecretary at the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration. Then and now his primary concern is getting more of the total inventory of plutonium out of circulation. His overarching focus on nonproliferation drives an almost unreasonable approach to options to manufacture MOX fuel and develop fast reactors. The reason, he says, is that these methods do nothing to reduce total plutonium in the fuel cycle.

Well, once you decide that’s all you’re going to do, the rest become easy. In fact, the MOX fuel plant being built in South Carolina will take 34 tons of plutonium out of circulation and put it to good use in conventional LWRs. Worldwide, almost three dozen reactors burn MOX fuel.

Areva has a different idea

Areva La HagueDavid Jones, an Areva executive with a long career in spent fuel management for nuclear utilities, said on a conference call with nuclear bloggers last week the MIT recommendations do not support a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle approach that supports nuclear growth scenarios.

He is critical of MIT’s focus on an R&D plan instead of an action plan.

"This is contrary to what is being done in nearly every other country where this question is addressed up front as a matter of policy."

He told the bloggers the report also recommends the U.S. offer fuel leasing to other countries, but seems to fail to recognize the credibility issue of this concept.

"How can we expect to demonstrate leadership to the world on used fuel management when we cannot decide ourselves if used fuel is a waste or a resource?"

Why are other nations recycling their fuel? Jones says economics isn’t the only reason.

"The motivations of other nations, such as France, Japan and the United Kingdom, to recycle are not purely economic but also are informed by questions of energy security, resource conservation, public acceptance and others that reside in the social sciences."

Jones closed his comments by noting that once again the U.S. has its head in the sand.

"Every nation with a significant nuclear power sector, with the exception of the United States, has embraced recycling."

Separately, speaking in Vienna, Austria, at a 9/20 IAEA meeting, U.S. Energy Secretary Chu called for development of an international fuel bank. Assuming the IAEA administers the fuel bank, and retrogrades the spent fuel from customers, it’s an easy bet it won’t come back to the U.S., at least not while MIT’s report holds sway at the Blue Ribbon Commission.

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