MIT study: The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (major report released)

(…) The report also strongly supports the present US government policy of providing loan guarantees for the first several new nuclear plants to be built under newly revised licensing rules. Positive experience with “first-mover” plants—the first of these new US plants built after the current long hiatus—could reduce or eliminate financing premiums for nuclear-plant construction. Once those premiums are eliminated, Forsberg says, “we think nuclear power is economically competitive” with coal power, currently the cheapest option for utilities.

The central conclusion of this just-released MIT study [PDF of the report summary] will not surprise regular Seekerblog readers: there is plenty of uranium and even more thorium, so there is no resource constraint on the rapid growth of nuclear power. I recommend reading the summary report carefully (the complete report chapters aren’t yet published on the web). For an overview, the MIT Energy Initiative press release is useful:

(…) Ernest J. Moniz, director of the MIT Energy Initiative and co-chair of the new study, says the report’s conclusion that uranium supplies will not limit growth of the industry runs contrary to the view that had prevailed for decades—one that guided decisions about which technologies were viable. “The failure to understand the extent of the uranium resource was a very big deal” for determining which fuel cycles were developed and the schedule of their development, he says.

The study concludes that a uranium-initiated breeder design with a unity conversion ratio of 1.0 is likely to be superior to higher-conversion-ratio designs (ratios of 1.2 to 1.3). That’s one of several new concepts for me:

The new study suggests an alternative: an enriched uranium-initiated breeder reactor in which additional natural or depleted (that is, a remnant of the enrichment process) uranium is added to the reactor core at the same rate nuclear materials are consumed. No excess nuclear materials are produced. This is a much simpler and more efficient self-sustaining fuel cycle.

One of prof. Fosberg’s CSIS presentation slides captures the uranium supply/demand picture succinctly:

Best estimate of 50% increase in uranium cost if:

• Nuclear power grows by a factor of 10 worldwide

• Each reactor operates for a century

I believe that the new MIT study is a “big deal” — it provides high-credibility backing to almost every nuclear fuel cycle concept that we have been proposing (such as preserving the enormous value of “waste” for future use as fuel cycle feedstock). Our job now is to motivate the politicians to adopt and implement the conclusions.

PS – I’m keen for Appendix A to be released “Thorium Fuel Cycle Options”.