Major report released by MIT: No shortage of uranium for nuclear energy, more research needed

Sep 17, 2010 By David L. Chandler
Graphic: Christine Daniloff

Uranium supplies will not limit the expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. or around the world for the foreseeable future, according to a major new interdisciplinary study produced under the auspices of the MIT Energy Initiative.

The study challenges conventional assumptions about nuclear energy. It suggests that nuclear power using today’s reactor technology with a once-through fuel cycle can play a significant part in displacing the world’s carbon-emitting fossil-fuel plants, and thus help to reduce the potential for global climate change. But determining the best fuel cycle for the next generation of nuclear power plants will require more research, the report concludes.

The report focuses on what is known as the “nuclear fuel cycle” — a concept that encompasses both the kind of fuel used to power a reactor (currently, most of the world’s reactors run on mined uranium that has been enriched, while a few run on plutonium) and what happens to the fuel after it has been used (either stored on site or disposed of underground — a “once-through” cycle — or reprocessed to yield new reactor fuel).

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.

In the United States, the idea of a limited uranium supply prompted decades of planning aimed at ultimately developing “fast spectrum” reactors to breed plutonium. Such systems convert non-fissile forms of uranium — that is, not capable of sustaining a — into different fissile elements, including plutonium, that could be used to fuel other reactors. Thus, via fuel recycling, they create a much greater supply of reactor fuel than could be obtained by relying only on fuel made directly from processed uranium ore.

But it would take a conventional light-water reactor (LWR) 30 years just to provide the plutonium to start one such breeder reactor, and so far, such systems have not been found to be economically viable.

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 an additional benefit to this concept that would provide a built-in protection against nuclear weapons proliferation: Large amounts of separated , a nuclear-weapons material, are needed to start the breeder reactors in the traditional fuel cycle. In contrast, the starting uranium fuel could not be used for a weapon. On the downside, however, there are little hard data on whether such a cycle would really be practical and economically competitive.

One of the report’s major conclusions is that more research is needed before such decisions can be made.

One reason the study came to such different conclusions from previous research is because it looked at the various components — from mining to reactor operation to waste disposal — holistically, explains Mujid Kazimi, the TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Engineering at MIT and co-chair of the study. “When you look at the whole thing together, you start seeing things that were not obvious before,” he says.

The report — the latest in a series of broad-based MITEI studies of different aspects of energy — was produced by 10 faculty members, three contributing authors and eight student research assistants, with guidance from a 13-member expert advisory panel from industry, academia and nonprofit organizations.

It was funded by the Electric Power Research Institute, Idaho National Laboratory, Institute, Areva, GE-Hitachi, Westinghouse, Energy Solutions, and Nuclear Assurance Corporation.

“There has been very little research on the fuel cycle for about 30 years,” says Charles Forsberg, MIT research scientist in nuclear engineering and executive director of the study. “People hadn’t gone back and looked at the underlying assumptions.”

In this study, Kazimi says, “what we found was that, at any reasonable expected growth of nuclear power over this century, the availability of uranium will not be a constraint.”

The report also concludes that in the United States, significant changes are needed in the planning and implementation of spent-fuel storage and disposal options, including the creation of a new quasi-governmental body to oversee the process. Planning for how to deal with the spent fuel should be closely integrated with studies of the optimal fuel cycle, the authors suggest.

The report strongly recommends that interim storage of spent nuclear fuel for a century or so, preferably in regional consolidated sites, is the best option. This allows the fuel to cool, and most importantly preserves future fuel-cycle choices to eventually send the fuel to a geological repository or reprocess it for energy resource and/or waste-management benefits. The optimal choice will reflect future conditions, such as the scale of nuclear-power deployment and the state of technology and its costs.

Ultimately, how to treat the spent fuel depends on the outcome of research, Moniz says. “Today, we would argue that we do not know whether spent fuel is a waste product or a resource,” he says. If the world continues to build once-through LWRs, it can be treated as waste and simply disposed of in a geological repository, but if the industry in the U.S. and worldwide switches to self-sustaining breeder reactors, then spent fuel will become an important resource, providing the raw material to be enriched and produce new fuel.

The report also strongly supports the present U.S. 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 U.S. 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 potential for using nuclear power to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is significant, the study suggests. In the U.S., now represents 70 percent of all zero-carbon electricity production. While no new U.S. plants have been ordered in 30 years, 27 new license applications have been submitted since new regulations were instituted to streamline the process. Meanwhile, China, India and other nations have accelerated construction of new plants.

One key message of the report is that it’s time to really study the underlying basis of nuclear-plant technology — what kind of fuel goes in, what comes out, and what happens to it — before focusing too much money and effort on the engineering details of specific power-plant designs. “You want to start with the things that drive all your choices,” Forsberg says. “People had not looked at these options enough.”

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User comments : 44

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3.8 / 5 (4) Sep 17, 2010
Turn it over to the French to manage for us. They've been smart and have exploited nuclear power. We have been stupid and restricted nuclear. In any case, there is enough uranium for 10,000 years, and enough thorium for another 18,000 years. Nuclear becomes unlimited when reprocessing is used.
1.3 / 5 (3) Sep 17, 2010
W00 \0/ Denmark has a ban on Nuclear power, u kno? cuz its super dangerous
3.7 / 5 (6) Sep 17, 2010
Of course, 'more research' is ALWAYS needed.

The US Navy has been building, operating and living with nuclear reactors for decades.
5 / 5 (5) Sep 17, 2010
With proper safety systems in place and proper use of technology nuclear power is safe to use. Biggest problem currently is the radioactive material after it has been used for energy production. But this study is telling us that this waste can be managed so that there will be less of it. If coal plants also would have to manage all their waste, including CO2, as nuclear does, coal would be too expensive. So current comparison of coal and nuclear are actually skewed.
4.6 / 5 (5) Sep 17, 2010
It is interesting that some European countries that have "banned" nuclear power buy significant amounts of electricity from France, where 75% of the generating capacity is nuclear. Much like Berkeley, CA that has banned nucs and has one of the two reactors in the Bay area on campus.
4.3 / 5 (3) Sep 17, 2010
If people want to point fingers to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, one have to acknowledge that TMI had less than optimal safety system and operator errors were made. And even while the worst happened, the situation was contained. Then there is Chernobyl 'accident' which was really caused by reckless driving. Is it any wonder that the reactor misbehaved when they were conducting unapproved tests in the middle of night while understaffed and they had forced safety systems to be non-functional, since they were preventing their 'tests' in normal state. Just study the relevant documents and all is there for both of these mishaps. Other than that there has been thousands of proper working hours for all of worlds nuclear power plants.
5 / 5 (4) Sep 17, 2010
...TMI had less than optimal safety system and operator errors were made.

Absolutely nothing wrong with TMI-2 emergency core cooling system. Nothing. Until the operators terminated safety injection. They TURNED IT OFF.

4 / 5 (3) Sep 17, 2010
PPihkala, don't forget that Chernobyl used a reactor that was inherently unsafe - Graphite moderated reactor. Turning off safeties was the final nail in its coffin.
Overheat, steam and hydrogen/ CO ignition caused vessel rupture, improper containment design, and - the thing just up and caught fire, causing all the radioactive material in the graphite that built up (and possibly material from fuel rods) over the years to be released into the atmosphere.
not rated yet Sep 17, 2010
Accelerator based Fission?

And maybe 10 years from now, when beams get bright enough, accelerator based Fusion?

Btw, why hasn't NIF posted any results? :x
not rated yet Sep 17, 2010
Absolutely nothing wrong with TMI-2 emergency core cooling system. Nothing. Until the operators terminated safety injection. They TURNED IT OFF.

Sorry, didn't quite remember it right. But still less than optimal, because they could turn it off.
4.5 / 5 (4) Sep 17, 2010
PPihkala, don't forget that Chernobyl used a reactor that was inherently unsafe - Graphite moderated reactor. Turning off safeties was the final nail in its coffin.

I don't recommend such a reactor type, but the other ones have been safely used when operators aren't pushing them to do stupid things. You can ruin any power plant with improper use. What I want to say is that safety of nuclear plants is good, provided they are used properly. And normally they can't accidentally blow up. One must violate the usage rules to get them to be really hazardous.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 17, 2010
Turn it over to the French to manage for us. They've been smart and have exploited nuclear power. We have been stupid and restricted nuclear. In any case, there is enough uranium for 10,000 years, and enough thorium for another 18,000 years. Nuclear becomes unlimited when reprocessing is used.

The US has twice as many nuclear reactors as France. Just because France's percentage of electricity from nuclear is higher, doesn't mean they are more proficient. Japan has just as many reactors as France as well.

5 / 5 (1) Sep 17, 2010
where IS all this uranium? Wouldn't want to get locked into another energy dependency...
not rated yet Sep 17, 2010
PPihkala, human nature is the problem.

The reactor needs to be as idiot-proof as possible - certainly it is unreasonable to protect against all events and all idiots, but it needs to be made fairly difficult for an event like Chernobyl to occur. In other words, modes of failure need to be negative feedback, not positive feedback. Self-containing/extinguishing for (my) lack of better words.

The modern pebble-bed reactors look very promising in that regard.

not rated yet Sep 17, 2010
1 / 5 (2) Sep 17, 2010
"It was funded by the Electric Power Research Institute, Idaho National Laboratory, Nuclear Energy Institute, Areva, GE-Hitachi, Westinghouse, Energy Solutions, and Nuclear Assurance Corporation."

Yep, not one organization interested in promoting nuclear energy at the expense of the taxpayer here. Not a single one.

But then, we're not supposed to trust the oil industry on global warming, eh?
not rated yet Sep 18, 2010
where IS all this uranium? Wouldn't want to get locked into another energy dependency...

Australia has large deposits to my knowledge.
not rated yet Sep 18, 2010
Danmark has put its money on windenergy, installing offshore windfarms and develeloping new technology is a large exportproduct for them, so going nuclear would bite their own efforts to stay in the topleagua of the windenergy industry, china on the other hand is big, has the resources and the urgent energyhunger/need to develop all possible energyroutes at once fossil/hydro/wind/solar/nuclear, but it seems they favour nuclear because they want to massproduce nuclear reactors to bring down the cost and sell them wallmart style
1 / 5 (3) Sep 18, 2010
Why do we have to use nuclear energy? To pollute and distroy our environment? We are surrounded by the ocean of Free Energy.
"Mystery of Electrogenerators of Free Energy solved"
"In this article and the following ones I released Djinni of Free Energy out the bottle. The implications are enormous. Mankind can use consciously Free Energy for their economic and cultural development or unconsciously,to their self-destruction.."
5 / 5 (1) Sep 18, 2010
Irrational and fashionable fear of closed fuel cycle nuclear power has probably done more harm to the environment and caused more political violence than almost anything else I can think of.

Think of how different the world would be if oil hadn't diverted vast wealth into the hands of unstable middle east countries, and the release of CO2 would be a tiny fraction of what it is today.

Yes the first versions of the technology needed a lot of improvement. So did planes, cars, medicine, and every other form of technology.

But instead of implementing passive safe designs and closing the fuel cycle to extract ALL the energy in it, we take it out of the reactor and call it "waste" and declare no new construction of improved reactors to REPLACE THE OLD DIRTY REACTORS!

The hubris, the self righteousness, the ignorance. Such a waste.
1.8 / 5 (5) Sep 18, 2010

"Irrational and fashionable fear of closed fuel cycle nuclear power has probably done more harm to the environment "

You're not sane, you're deluded. It is the other way around - the nuclear "peace" industry (which is a government ploy to try to offset the cost of nuclear weaponry) has been a costly drag on any economy that has it.

I challenge you to show that:

1. That there is at least ONE nuclear power plant that has been built, operated and decommissioned fully without massive government involvement. If they are so efficient, that would be easy.

2. That there is at least ONE nuclear power plant that has, over its lifetime, made more money than was spent on it. To make it easy for you, skip the cost of waste management after 50 years of closedown.

There is NO such thing as safe AND practical nuclear energy. The "too cheap to measure" referred to the science fiction of fusion reacto
not rated yet Sep 19, 2010
The MIT report fails to consider the shortage of metals that are used to construct nuclear plants, which would occur if nuclear power is considerably scaled up from its present level. See this video for an explanation:
5 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2010
Saying nuclear is unsafe and bringing up Three Mile Island and Chernobyl is like saying flying is unsafe because of the Hindenburg disaster.

@NukeEater - photovoltaic, solar-thermal, wind and wave energy all use magnitudes of order greater materials for construction, both steel and concrete.

At least read bravenewclimate dot com slash category slash tcase-series

Coal puts more uranium and thorium in to the environment that nuclear ever has or will. We would have been much better off being nuclear dependent for the past 50 years, that way we'd still have another couple of thousand years to get renewables and fusion right.

Ideally, a cheap, low impact energy source is what we really need, and from what I've read it sounds like nuclear can get us out of trouble by providing constant load supply in the gigawatt capacity that renewables just can't match yet for highly industrialized areas.
not rated yet Sep 19, 2010
It seems possible to provide light commercial and residential with enough electricity for solar & wind now if we used intelligent appliances and energy storage.

We the mix of renewables and nuclear we have available now I think we can make it through this period of human history. All that's required is we act now to rapidly move away from fossils.
not rated yet Sep 19, 2010
its time for nukes 2.0 and leave the hindenburg accident behind us, i wouldnt say the previous versions were without problems, but technology for passive securitymeasures and closed fuelk cycles has progressed and past fears shouldn't stop us to shy away from this oppertunity to let nuclear energy finally deliver what was promised 50 years ago, vast amounts of green energy
3 / 5 (2) Sep 19, 2010
Kuro: It was so easy to do a search on line and find information about cost comparisons with nuclear and other forms of power I'm thinking your not interested in actual discussion but more interested in trolling.

I found it especially interesting how expensive it can be to decommission coal power plants and restore the environment after a hydroelectric dam is removed.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 19, 2010
"It was so easy to do a search on line and find information about cost comparisons with nuclear and other forms of power I'm thinking your not interested in actual discussion but more interested in trolling."

So, which is this plant?

If it were so easy for you to find the power station that was built without government grants/subsidies and is making money in excess of what it cost to build and develop, why did you fail to provide the evidence?

I am not interested in generic "cost" comparisons, which are meaningless, I am interested in specific examples of nuclear plants built and operated by the private enterprise without government subsidies that manage to be profitable.

Alternatively, it is okay to show examples of plants with subsidies, but please include the total cost spent by the respective government on nuclear tech.

Come on, show us the money.
not rated yet Sep 20, 2010
we need to get off fossil fuels yesterday. Big, whale sized nuclear power plants take 10 years to build. Mini plants are the way to go and they'll run using nuclear waste. check it out http://www.digita........for more just google "mini nuclear reactor"
not rated yet Sep 20, 2010
my link got scrambled, sorry, here it is http://www.digita...eactors/
1 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2010
I see you've come up with plenty of evidence :)
1 / 5 (1) Sep 20, 2010
5 / 5 (3) Sep 20, 2010
kuro, don't dump on robbor just because he didn't answer your questions exactly as you demand.

If you are implying that only nuclear energy has or continues to receive subsidies or incentives, please identify a major technology or industrial activity that did not get it's start with government involvement.

As for nuclear power, it can be divided into two camps. Direct value comparisons and hypothetical value comparisons. The biggest difference between the two is the price placed on environmental impact and health consequences that are not seen on the balance sheets, like with coal and oil.

For example, if you believe AGW could wreck society as we know it, fossil fuel energy is very very expensive compared with Nuclear.

But for the unimaginative, I remember reading the French borrowed about FF 400 billion to construct theirs and are paid off and earning EUR 60 billion in energy exports now.
1 / 5 (5) Sep 20, 2010
Hehe, I see you failed to provide example of a working, profitable, non-sponsored nuclear power plant. I am not surprised -- there is simply no such thing.

Regardless of what supposed "externalities" you throw at the other side, nuclear doesn't make sense economically -- and never has.

Trying instead to weasel yourself out with appeals to various Malthusian theories, "as far as I can remember" suppositions and giving example of a country that has been in perennial economic doldrums for several decades as a success story just further underlines your fail.

Nice job ;)
5 / 5 (1) Sep 21, 2010
Oops, I think I fed a troll! I didn't recognize you until the juvenile barbs and pointed evasion of rational discussion.

Or, your not even interested in what the technology is that could improve the living standards of billions of people, just dismiss it out of hand, the accomplishments of something done right because your biased against the country that built it.

Either way, so sad.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2010
Well, with no shred of evidence, you're the troll, my friend.

Welcome to the FAIL.
1 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2010
Average nuclear power plant produces 12,4 billion kWh a year. Cost ef electricity is typicaly about 15 cents per kWh. This means that average nuclear power plant produces about 1,86 billion dollars worth of electricity.

Average cost of running a nuclear plant, including fuel, maintenance etc. is about 2.1 cents per kWh produced.

With such numbers, I dont see why nuclear power should not be profitable. It is generaly thought to be the cheapest source of energy after fossil fuels burning.

5 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2010
Well, with no shred of evidence, you're the troll, my friend.

Welcome to the FAIL.

Even if you are correct, the only thing you are convincing anybody of that you are an ahole. Just consider how you've conducted yourself. Most teenagers display more maturity. Please consider expressing your ideas and criticism like an adult and not the playground bully.
not rated yet Sep 22, 2010
I'm going to side with Kuro on this. Its high time people started pointing out the massive and most likely intractable problems that Nuclear power faces. The commentators on science site after science site tout various exotic nuclear fuel chains as the panacea to solve all the world's energy ills without any discussion of the environmental repercussions or any acknowledgment that the regulations imposed on the nuclear power industry weren't only based on two accidents. There have been 99 nuclear accidents since 1952 with 56 of them happening after chernobyl. That's 1.7 nuclear accidents/year. Hardly an untarnished safety record. 3 Mile Island cost $2.4 billion to restore.

Kuro made a claim and offered a means by which that claim could be refuted. His claim: there does not exist a single operational nuclear power plant that is unsubsidized and profitable. If anyone can submit one counterexample that refutes this claim he has been answered. No one has.
not rated yet Sep 22, 2010
He is not bullying the discussion. He is clearly demonstrating that proponents of nuclear energy are not up to the task of defending their claims. How about some other reasons why nuclear energy will not be the power source of the future:

1. In 20 years time, humanity will need to produce 40 TeraWatts of power to meet its consumption requirements. If nuclear energy is to provide those 22 Terawatts of power we must commission 3667 new 6GW nuclear power plants. That means we have to commission one new plant every two days for the next 20 years to meet our currently projected energy requirements. Not going to happen.

2. During that 20 year period we have to source, exploit and maintain the infrastructure required to support our nuclear fuel chain.

3. Current disposal suggestions require dumping our spent fuel in geologically stable sites. The only reactor designs we have ready to deploy produce waste. Many people are justifiably concerned with
not rated yet Sep 22, 2010
what kind of reasonable provisions can be made for the storage of nuclear waste for even 100years, let alone the 1000 year cooling off period required for many current nuclear fuel byproducts.

4. NUclear power plants are expensive and are highly controlled. Many developing countries are not allowed to develop nuclear capabilities in order to prevent nuclear proliferation. Some simply don't have the GDP required to build and maintain them. The majority of energy consumption will come from the developing world in the next 20 years. Any solution that cannot scale for and be deployed in the third world is an unworkable solution.

That's four of many reasons nuclear power will not be the power source of future humanity. You're never going to read that in the comment section of physorg though are ya?
5 / 5 (1) Sep 24, 2010
I asked what major industry hasn't been subsidized to begin with, or doesn't continue to be subsidized in some way. No answer, because there is none. I bet you didn't even know the most profitable industry in the world, oil, still gets subsidies.

The premise that government subsidy invalidates the viability or utility of an industry shows a lack of economic understanding or sophistication.

EIA 2010 estimates 35.2 trillion kWh in 25 years.

Renewables will rise by about 3 percent per year, followed by coal by 2.3 percent per year. Nuclear power will increase by 2 percent per year. Assuming unchanged policies.

Only one plant is cited being in America, because essentially America is incompetent regarding the process of researching and building them, not because of any intrinsic properties of nuclear power.

I'm guessing you have no idea what the EIA is or how to use google to find it so I did it for you.

5 / 5 (1) Sep 24, 2010
Why are people STILL so ignorant about nuclear power "waste"!?

Do people just willfully put fingers in their ears saying "la la" whenever recycling fuel rods and fast neutron reactors that CONSUME "waste" to produce 99x times more energy than once through old technology?

Protesters that stopped improved technology plants left us stuck with the old dirty inefficient ones. And then complain about the very waste problem THEY CREATED!!!

Yes, the first rounds of plants needed a lot of improvements to be safer, more cost effective, and cleaner (less waste). Name an industry that didn't.


Coal has done orders of magnitude more damage to peoples lives and the environment since the start of nuclear power.

We still build more coal power plants because nuclear power became "political" by a bunch of ignorant activists who got their jollies by being morally superior if only in their own minds.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 24, 2010
As for "source, exploit and maintain the infrastructure required to support our nuclear fuel chain."


In comparison of energy content, an average uranium mine equals 9 coal mines! And that was cited for a LWR. A IFR type design were used to extract the other 99% of energy present in the "waste", then it could displace the production of 891 coal mines.

Potentially, enough uranium has already been mined to supply IFR type reactors for hundreds of years without the need for any more to be produced.

Again, guessing you have no idea what an IFR is or how to use google to find it, here is.

not rated yet Oct 01, 2010
One thing is clear. In future a society may be able to maintain its burger joints and stock selling shops without nuclear power, but not industry. The choice is starkly clear. 1) Avoid nuclear power and trust eg. Korea and China etc. to do all your steel smelting, nickel refining, shipbuilding etc. etc. or 2) Learn how to generate power efficiently and safely with nuclear fission and breeder fuel cycles.