Japan's nuclear plant crisis with the radioactivity contamination from spent fuel pools is likely to put an overdue spotlight on stalemated U.S. policies for managing reactor fuel, authors of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology report on the nuclear fuel cycle said yesterday.

The report, "The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle," recommends a multi-decade program of moving spent fuel that now is stored in concrete and steel casks at reactors and decommissioned nuclear plants to a few centralized federal facilities. The authors see this as a stopgap step while an extensive research program investigates the potential for recycling spent fuel to produce new supplies. Spent reactor fuel may be either a waste or a resource, and it may take decades to find out which is true, the report authors conclude.

The 258-page report was nearly completed when the March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck Japan's northeast coast, crippling three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex and damaging the fuel pool at a fourth reactor. The MIT authors did not attempt to analyze the damage to the Japanese facility.

But they predicted that the catastrophe could lead to new regulations requiring increased investment and operating costs in currently operating and future nuclear plants. "Requirements for on-site spent fuel management may increase and design basis threats may be elevated," the report says.

"The relicensing of forty-year old nuclear plants for another twenty years of operation will face additional scrutiny, with outcomes depending on the degree to which plants can meet new requirements. Indeed, some of the license extensions already granted for more than 60 of the 104 operating U.S. reactors could be revisited," it says.

"The entire spent fuel management system -- on-site storage, consolidated long-term storage, geological disposal -- is likely to be reevaluated in a new light because of the Fukushima storage pool experience," the report says.

MIT physics professor Ernest Moniz, director of the MIT Energy Initiative and co-chairman of the spent fuel study, said that until now, U.S. policy on the disposition of spent reactor fuel has been an "afterthought." The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks led to new requirements to safeguard spent fuel pools at U.S. reactors, but the overall policy toward the nuclear fuel cycle has been bound up in the fight over the proposed fuel repository at Nevada's Yucca Mountain, which the Obama administration wants to terminate.

Moniz; Mujid Kazimi, director of the MIT Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems; and Charles Forsberg, executive director of the MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study, led a panel discussion of the report yesterday.

Transfer to interim fuel storage sites
The report agrees with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's conclusion that spent fuel can be safely stored above ground for many decades, until an ultimate geological repository is built.

It takes no position on the question of whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should require reactor owners to accelerate transfers of spent fuel from pools into dry casks. Fuel units must be stored initially in pools at reactor sites for about five years, until the decay heat drops enough to permit movement into dry cask containers.

The Union of Concerned Scientists and other organizations have urged the NRC to order the transfer to occur once the five-year period has passed, since some fuel units remain in the pools long after that time. Industry officials say the federal government should determine what its fuel cycle policy will be before issuing such an order.

The MIT report says that transfers of spent fuel in casks could begin with the leftover fuel at decommissioned U.S. plants -- a first step that, if successful, could bolster public confidence in the process. Transfers of casks from operating reactors could follow, and the report authors said that would help resolve a long-running court dispute over payments nuclear plant operators are required to make to the federal government in return for federal storage of the spent fuel -- a bargain the federal government has not kept.

The report recommends that a new quasi-government waste management organization be established to implement the nation's waste management program. To succeed, the organization would have to have secure, long-term funding and would have to commit to local acceptance of any proposed centralized storage facility, the report says. Initial sites could be found at national laboratory locations, military bases or decommissioned nuclear plants if local communities agreed, the report says.

A fundamental assumption of the report is that current supplies of uranium are more than adequate to meet the needs of an expanding nuclear power sector, and therefore the United States should not accelerate development of reactor fuel reprocessing until extensive additional research has been done to identify the best fuel cycle technologies and strategies.

U.S. policy should aim at development of self-sustaining "fast" reactors that generate enough fuel to maintain operations, rather than pursuing breeder reactors that create excess fuel, the report says. These reactors could be started with low-enriched uranium rather than highly enriched uranium or plutonium, lessening risks of theft of materials that could be converted into weapons.

The report calls for commitments of $1 billion a year for fuel cycle research.

"There is also the need to rebuild much of the supporting R&D infrastructure. To support R&D for new reactors and fuel cycles, facilities will ultimately be required with special test capabilities. Examples include fast neutron flux materials test facilities, fuel-cycle separations test facilities, and facilities for novel nuclear applications," and using the higher heat generated in fast reactors for industrial purposes as well as power generation, it says.

Projected $3 billion 'structural investment'
Some of the new facilities the report proposes have billion-dollar price tags, which would come on top of the funds sought for nuclear research and development "A structural investment on the order of $300 million per year will be required for a decade or so to make a significant difference," it says.

The MIT report says the research in future nuclear plant technologies is justified to determine whether nuclear power emerges as a major carbon-free source of electric power. "We feel that should go forward to confirm or not the cost projections ... and the ability to build new plants in the U.S.," Moniz said.

The study estimates that new nuclear plants carry a heavy risk premium because of uncertain construction costs. This risk factor pushes the "levelized" or all-in price of nuclear power from new units to 8.4 cents per kilowatt-hour, the MIT study concludes, versus 6.2 cents for coal-fired plants and 6.5 cents for natural gas generation (if gas is priced at $7 per million British thermal units, or roughly 1,000 cubic feet of flowing gas).

"For new base load power in the U.S., nuclear power plants are likely to have higher levelized electricity costs than new coal plants (without carbon dioxide capture and sequestration) or new natural gas plants. Eliminating this financial risk premium makes nuclear power levelized electricity cost competitive with that of coal, and it becomes lower than that of coal when a modest price on carbon dioxide emissions is imposed," the report says.

Federal loan guarantees and subsidies to support construction of a few new reactors should provide evidence on the costs of new plants, the study says. If new plants can be built on time and on budget, the risk premium could fall, bringing the price of power from new plants down to 6.6 cents per kilowatt-hour -- competitive with gas and coal -- the report says.

Adding a price on carbon emissions at even a "modest" level of $25 per ton would make new nuclear energy competitive with coal and natural gas even if the risk premium remains, the MIT study concludes.

"I think it's pretty open to what the future of nuclear power is going to be," said Moniz, and a crucial issue is the question of pricing carbon.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500