Last Friday, I after a discussion of nuclear energy started, with a lot of half-remembered data on my side and in order to stop that feature of the conversation, I dug up on the net an authoritative report on the “future of nuclear energy.” These papers are in pdf form:

  1. The full document is here. This is a study by a group of MIT professors on the status of Nuclear power in the US and the world.
  2. The summary is here. This is a summary of the findings in the prior document.
  3. Finally, in 2009 (the original documents were written in 2003) an update of the current situation given the economic and political conditions is given here.

Anyhow, I’m going to attempt summarize the summary. Please bring up any points on which further elaboration would be useful.

These reports are an attempt to analyze what would be required in order to retain nuclear power as a (the?) significant option meeting our growing electrical power needs and in light of a demand to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Putting this in concrete terms, the authors put forth recommendations how to best boost nuclear power by a factor of 3, to 1000 Gigawats by 2050. For the carbon enthusiast this would save 1.8 million tonnes of carbon or about a 25% reduction from a scenario in which nuclear power is not increased.

Basic findings:

  • Cost — In deregulated markets, nuclear power is not now cost competitive with coal and natural gas. Plausible reductions in capital costs, operational costs, and reduced construction time could cut into the gap. In their model, with a 40/y plant life currently costs of nuclear are 6.7 … reductions bring that down to 4.2 (which assume commercial risks come down to the level of coal and gas and which account for .9 of the reduction). For comparison coal is at 4.2 and gas ranges between 3.8 to 5.6 depending on market prices of (natural) gas. The units are cents per KW-hour. Carbon credits of course could give it an advantage. It should be noted that costs of running gas and coal plants are fuel dominated, whereas nuclear is not.
  • Safety — Modern reactor designs have very low risks of serious accidents but ‘best practices’ in construction and operations need to be followed. Less is known about the safety of the overall fuel cycle(s) (there are many variants of fuel and fuel cycle/recycle which is one reason this is so complex)
  • Waste — Tied to the above complexity of fuel cycles and safety this ties to the waste question. There are a lot of choices. Geological disposal is feasible … but more research is needed. The authors feel that the geologic disposal in deep bore holes the most attractive alternative and recommend moving R&D in that direction. One reason for this is the drilling site can be coterminous with the reactor facility and transport of waste is not then necessary.
  • Proliferation — Europe, Japan, and Russia use a plutonium reprocessing (breeder) system for fuel which has accompanied unwarranted proliferation risks.

The study authors recommend, in light of safety, proliferation and their evaluation of the waste situation that for at least the next 50 years, a once through fuel cycle provides the best possible combination of pros and cons. Once through fuel cycles, take more raw ore as a resource and have more need for long term storage of waste, but gain on the economics, the proliferation, and fuel cycle safety fronts. Using the once through fuel cycle with a 1000 GWatt power level would require a repository on the scale of a Yucca mtn to be created somewhere every three to four years. This is what prompts the interest in the more advanced, more complicated and expensive closed fuel cycles. These schemes recover the actinides from the waste, reducing the thermal load of the waste on the repository, increasing its capacity and shortening the time it needs to be isolated from the biosphere.

They also note that public education is necessary, for the public at large does not presently see nuclear as an option for the energy (and greenhouse gas) needs for the future. Their specific recommendations for US policy include:

  • Focus its R&D on the once-though fuel cycle
  • Establish a Nuclear System Modeling project to carry out the analysis, research, simulation, and collection/collation of data to evaluate all fuel cycles from the viewpoints of: cost, safety, waste management, and proliferation resistance;
  • undertake an evaluation of uranium deposits as a resource;
  • broaden its waste management R&D program;
  • and support R&D to reduce the cost of LWR costs construction and the development of HTGR as an alternative.

Filed under: EnergyEnvironmentGlobal WarmingMark O.

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