Nuclear power advocates have a new weapon against detractors who claim that there isn't enough uranium to support a growing nuclear habit. A report (PDF) released yesterday by the MIT Energy Initiative claims that there is plenty of uranium for nuclear plants--if we know how to use it.
In the past, researchers focused on building "fast spectrum" plutonium-breeding reactors that recycle uranium fuel. But so far, this method has proved uneconomical. MIT explains:
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.
There's also an added benefit: These reactors don't contain enough separated plutonium to breed nuclear weapons, creating an automatic safeguard against terrorism.
Of course, a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary for a study funded by the Nuclear Energy Institute, Nuclear Assurance Corporation, and GE-Hitachi (a nuclear reactor manufacturer). Last week Mark Cooper, senior research fellow for economic analysis at Vermont Law School, released a paper outlining the policy challenges for nuclear energy. He argues:
The MIT cost estimate for new reactors ($4,000 per kW) is below what utilities are using today ($5,000-$6,000 per kW) and way below what independent analysts are using (as high as $10,000 per kW). MIT has been consistently behind the curve in recognizing the high cost of new reactors. If MIT’s original $2,000 per kW cost for new reactors was correct, the existing $18.5B in federal loan guarantees would have been sufficient for seven to 10 reactors.
So who should we believe? We probably won't have much of a choice. President Obama has pledged $8 billion for new nuclear reactors earlier this year. Nuclear power is here to stay, regardless of its cost-effectiveness.