MIT: We've Got Plenty of Uranium

uranium

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.

Ariel Schwartz can be reached on Twitter or by email.

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1 Comments

  • Tom Blees

    The article states: "There's also an added benefit: These reactors don't contain enough separated plutonium to breed nuclear weapons, creating an automatic safeguard against terrorism."

    If you build PRISM fast reactors and fuel them with metal fuel (as they're designed for) there will never be ANY separated plutonium, and instead of just burning uranium you'll be able to breed more to start up more reactors, all without any plutonium separation. Not that reactor-grade plutonium is any good for making nuclear weapons anyway, though that's the line that anti-nuclear fearmongers would have you believe.

    As for Mr. Cooper's paper, it's such a piece of work that it's hard to know where to begin. The excerpt quoted here is typical, failing to recognize that the high cost of nuclear power in the States is largely because of the uncertainty caused by lawsuits (by people of his ilk) on multi-billion dollar projects. It's not an inherent problem with nuclear power technology. The Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans can build U.S.-designed nuclear plants on time (in a few years) and on budget without a problem for a fraction of what Cooper is talking about. It's the system that's not working, not the reactors.