Maintaining the nuclear option

3 September 2003

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has carried out a two-year study looking at the importance of retaining the nuclear option to help reduce CO2 emissions and to ensure the security of electricity supply. The report, titled The Future of Nuclear Power, was put together by a team of eight professors from MIT and one from Harvard.

The report found that the prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited by four unresolved problems: high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes.

The chairman of the study, Ernest Moniz, said that the research was undertaken "because of a belief that nuclear power is an important option for the USA and the world to meet future energy needs without emitting CO2 and other atmospheric pollutants." The report said nuclear power "faces stagnation and decline" and that it must be retained "precisely because it is an important CO2-free source of power."

One of the main recommendations of the report was for the US Department of Energy (DoE) to focus on the open, once-through fuel cycle and to halt development and demonstration of advanced fuel cycles or reactors, such as the Generation IV technologies. However, the report said that there was justification for continuing research on high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs).

Other recommendations to the US Department of Energy (DoE) included:

• To conduct an international uranium resource assessment.

• To fund R&D to lower costs on advanced light water reactors.

• Streamline regulatory approvals.

• To establish interim centralised spent fuel storage.

• To research deep boreholes for geological waste disposal rather than rely on mined repositories like Yucca Mountain.

The study also suggests that the DoE establishes a nuclear system modelling project to carry out the analysis, research, simulation and collection of engineering data needed to evaluate all fuel cycles or reactors before proceeding with further research projects into advanced reactors.

The study recommended that the federal government should offer a production tax credit of up to $200 per installed kilowatt of the construction costs for up to the first 10 units built. It suggested making the subsidy available through a tax credit of ¢1.7/kWh ­ the same level as wind power currently receives ­ for the first 18 months of full power operation. The study also favoured the government sharing the costs with industry for work associated with 'banking' a site for future construction, NRC certification of a new plant design, and the application process for a combined construction-operating licence.

The MIT study contradicts the recommendations of the DoE report to Congress in January 2003, titled Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative ­ the future path for advanced spent fuel treatment and transmutation research. This recommended advanced reprocessing and plutonium-burning technologies on the back end of the present fuel cycle and, in the longer term, new fuel cycles tied to Generation IV reactors.

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