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MIT Study Says Nuclear Fuel Is Enough For Decades, Still Companies Head to Natural Gas

Spent nuclear fuel

New types of nuclear fission reactors could consume their uranium much more efficiently, says a study from the MIT, called “The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle”.

Charles Forsberg, one of the study’s co-authors, says that their work tries to make it easier for the United States to enhance their nuclear power usage by three times, and produce more than 1 GW of electricity.

Spent fuel, for example, instead of being buried into the ground, could find its use in more efficient reactors specially designed to burn it.They could use regional waste repositories for radioactive spent to cool for up to a century before being buried.

The study says “it would be a mistake to exclude” nuclear power from the palette of energy sources we’ll use in the future and that a new “quasi-government waste management organization” should be set up manage the spent fuel and how it’s being used.

The study’s most interesting discovery is that the uranium available worldwide is enough to fuel the plants that will be built for decades to come, which somehow counteracts with the idea of reprocessing spent fuel.

Ernest Moriz, an MIT professor said that “we really don’t know today if spent nuclear fuel from light water reactors is waste, or a resource.”

“We believe that nuclear energy should be able to compete on the open market as should other energy options,” the report states. Even so, nuclear power will have a hard time competing with traditional fossil fuels like coal and natural gas unless “a modest price on carbon dioxide emissions is imposed,” the study also says.

On the other hand, Exelon, the largest nuclear power producer in the United States, said they are turning to natural gas instead of uranium, and withdrew its application to build and operate two new nuclear reactors in Texas. “We think natural gas will stay cheap for a very long time,” John Rowe, Exelon CEO, told Bloomberg last week. “As long as natural gas is anywhere near current price forecasts, you can’t economically build a merchant nuclear plant.”

With its price declining, natural gas now has a significant cost advantage over nuclear. Indeed, indications are that nuclear power will have a tough time competing in the energy marketplace unless Congress puts a price on carbon emissions.

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  1. Instead of a 3x improvement in power generated, we can fission much more of the fuel than that, using technology that has already been demonstrated.

    A completely different kind of reactor, a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, fissions 99+% of its fuel.

    Since all the uranium and transuranic materials get fissioned, All of the waste is completely benign in under 350 years (83% of it is safe in 10 years!)

    To produce 1 giga-watt electricity for a year in a LFTR, produces only 1 ton of waste.

    A current reactor (PWR/LWR) to produce a giga-watt year electricity, produces 250 tons of waste (they can only fission 1-2% of the fuel before fission byproducts stop the nuclear reaction; 35 tons fuel plus 215 tons depleted uranium).

    LFTRs use coolant that is stable even at very high temperatures, and no water — no high-pressure to contain, no loss of coolant accidents, no risk of hydrogen explosions, no massive containment structure needed.

    A LFTR has inherent safety (for example, the coolant won’t boil away), and passive safety (for example, the fuel drains safely to cooling tanks where no nuclear reaction is possible, even if there is no power).

    And we even operated one for 5 years…

    Go read my Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor blog, it is fascinating and we would like what happens when we build them.


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