A Massachusetts Institute of Technology task force report called yesterday for the United States to create a few centralized storage sites for spent nuclear reactor fuel in the next decades, while researching new reactor designs that could reduce the challenges of permanent geological burial of nuclear wastes.
The report, "The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle," co-chaired by MIT professors Mujid Kazimi, Ernest Moniz and Charles Forsberg, also concludes that worldwide supplies of uranium will be sufficient to serve a tenfold increase in light water reactors, each operating for 60 years. "There is no shortage of uranium resources that might constrain future commitments to build new nuclear plants for at least much of this century," the report says.
That judgment leads to another: that the United States and other countries should continue to rely for decades on the "once through" open fuel cycle with light water reactors. That would allow time for more research on "fast" reactor designs whose operation generates new fuel and becomes self-sustaining.
Nuclear waste research and planning ought to look out to a 100-year horizon, the report says. But solutions that emerge could be adopted sooner.
"We're not saying, 'Just exhale and sit back,'" Moniz said. The MIT report calls for a $1 billion annual research budget on fuel cycle issues.
Proposals for centralized waste facilities envision spent fuel storage in large concrete casks -- which could be above ground, or in covered pits -- as used fuel is commonly stored now at reactor plants around the country. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission this week upheld a staff conclusion that on-site storage is safe for at least 60 years.
A way to end an expensive lawsuit
Removing this fuel to one or more centralized facilities would take the wastes off the hands of nuclear plant operators, which are suing the federal government for reneging on a commitment to store the wastes, beginning in 1998, a service the utilities are paying for but not receiving. Thus far, payments for the program by utility customers, plus accumulated interest, total $24 billion, the industry says.
The report sidesteps the controversy over the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada. Following a commitment to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Obama administration has cut off funding for the underground burial site and wants to withdraw with prejudice the Energy Department's 8,600-word construction authorization application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, submitted two years ago.
An NRC Atomic Safety and Licensing Board denied DOE's motion, saying withdrawal would violate Congress' clear intent. The NRC commissioners are now reviewing the board's action.
The MIT report says that the United States can and should create a permanent geological repository for spent fuels eventually. "The issue isn't whether you can site geological repositories," Forsberg said. "Lots of people have been doing it," he said. The United States has gone about it in the wrong way by trying to force it on Nevada, the MIT panel said.
The United States should not advance work on closed-cycle, fast breeder reactors in which the combustion of uranium generates surplus supplies of plutonium fuel, a focus of weapons proliferation risks, the report recommends. Instead, it calls for research on fast light water reactors that would produce enough new uranium fuel to be self-sustaining but not create surplus fuel.
"Today we do not have sufficient knowledge to make informed choices for the best cycles and associated technologies," the MIT report says. "There is adequate time before any choice for deployment need to move away from the current open fuel cycle."
That proposal was challenged by Thomas Cochran, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He faulted the report for not making it plain that nuclear fuel reprocessing and fast reactors are non-starters economically. MIT should have said that "fast reactors are priced out of the market and you see no way that they will get back in. ... Otherwise, you're teaching fairy tales at MIT."
Moniz responded, "We don't feel quite so certain about the trajectory of the cost differential of light water reactors and fast reactors."
Concerns about some future supply deals
To deter proliferation, the task force recommended that the United States and other suppliers of nuclear reactor fuels should actively pursue fuel leasing agreements with the growing number of countries that are embarking on new nuclear power programs. The supply group countries would commit to provide reactor fuel and reclaim used fuel, and would offer financial incentives that deter the new programs from moving to fuel enrichment or reprocessing, because of the threat of fuel diversion to weapons development.
MIT's preference would be for commercial leases for fixed time periods, backed by solid government and international compacts covering security and supply, Moniz said.
Sharon Squassoni, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has warned that the nonproliferation fuel regime managed informally by the Nuclear Suppliers Group of nations has been weakened dramatically by recent fuel supply deals, including the 2005 agreement between the United States and India, which has not signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. "Some countries are looking at that and saying, 'Why not us?'" she said in an interview.
Moniz said the United States is no longer in the position it held a generation ago, when it could say "Follow the leader" on energy and proliferation policies. "Right now, there is a big issue of [the United States] being technology leaders or technology takers." The U.S. position on nuclear fuel issues would be stronger if it followed a consistent policy, but that's not the case. "Let's face it, we're all over the map," he said.
Several members of the MIT task force and its advisory committee -- including Moniz; Richard Meserve, president of the Carnegie Institution for Science; and Philip Sharp, president of Resources for the Future -- are also on the Obama administration's Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future. The commission is charged with recommending policies for processing, storing and disposing of used fuel from civilian and military reactors and high-level radioactive waste -- the same agenda addressed by the MIT report.
A range of witnesses at the commission's public hearings have supported creation of one or more centralized storage facilities, leading some observers to believe that the commission will support that option when it makes its report, due next July.
Some communities offer to host site
State Delegate Sally Jameson (D), a Maryland legislator representing the National Conference of State Legislatures, told the commission at a May public hearing that her organization is in touch with several communities that would volunteer to host an interim used fuel storage facility. "Such communities exist and are ready to step forward," she said, without naming them.
Spent fuel from 10 decommissioned nuclear plants in Maine, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Oregon, Michigan, Colorado, Illinois, California and Massachusetts should be the first materials stored in interim facilities, so that the cleanup of these sites can be completed and the land redeveloped, she said.
NRDC's Cochran told the Blue Ribbon Commission that he supported centralized storage of used fuel in dry cask containers for reactors that have been shut down, but not for spent fuel at operating reactors. "That's an opportunity for the government to go ahead and demonstrate they can manage that process," he said.
Cochran suggested that the central storage facility could conceivably be located at Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, or on the site of the former Fort St. Vrain reactor in northern Colorado.
Another witness, Michigan utility commissioner Greg White, appearing on behalf of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, threw his support to proposals to place control of a interim storage site in the hands of a new waste management corporation rather than the Energy Department.
Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, representing nuclear plant owners, said the idea was worth considering. NEI has been asked by a small number of communities to describe the technical issues and business opportunities involved in creating an interim storage site, said Steven Kraft, NEI's senior director for used fuel management. He declined to name them. "Some of them said, 'Thank you; we'll get back to you.'" Others continue to look at the idea.
Even if a community and a state were all in favor of such a project, it could take seven to 10 years to complete the research and analysis and get it opened, he said.
'First mover' plants will be key
Incentives could clinch a deal, Kraft said. Moniz said that a community accepting a storage site could receive federal research funding on spent fuel management and possibly put itself in line for a reprocessing site much further down the road.
Yesterday's MIT report follows a 2003 study from the university on nuclear power that urged federal support for a handful of new reactors that would test the future of new nuclear power plants in the United States.
The new report asks the government to accelerate incentives for the construction of seven to 10 "first mover" plants with approved new designs, to demonstrate whether the plants can be built on time and on budget. The Energy Department has given conditional approval to a loan guarantee for construction of two new reactors in Georgia and is reviewing proposals for three other plants. However, the $10 billion remaining in the initial loan guarantee program authority will not stretch far enough for all three.
The MIT report says that federal incentives should be limited to the "first movers," arguing that "nuclear energy should be able to compete on the open market as should other energy options."
The cost of capital to construct a new nuclear power plant is significantly higher than for building a new coal- or natural gas-fired plant, because of the uncertainties about construction costs and timetables and the ability of new nuclear power plants to compete with other generation, the MIT report says.
The completion of the "first mover" plants will answer those questions one way or the other. If the plants are successfully built, that risk premium should disappear, dropping the "levelized" or total cost of power from the new nuclear plants down to 6.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, the MIT report concludes. Electricity from the new plants could then compete with coal and natural gas, even without an added carbon emission charge on fossil fuel plants, the report says.
"The first few U.S. plants will be a critical test for all parties involved," it says.