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MIT experts tackle nuclear power waste problem

Nuclear power is back in the discussion over the future of energy but the U.S. needs research to establish a long-term strategy on how to handle spent nuclear fuel, according to panel.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Advocates say a nuclear power "renaissance" can solve global energy problems, but construction of new reactors in the U.S. faces a number of barriers, not the least of which is nuclear waste.

Delaware Senator Thomas Carper, who actively supports nuclear power, hosted a panel of experts on Monday to discuss nuclear waste at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT on Monday also updated its 2003 study on how nuclear power can play a role in reducing carbon emissions (click for PDF).

The four panelists--executive director of the upcoming MIT Nuclear Fuels Cycle study Charles Forsberg, MIT professor of nuclear science and engineering Andrew Kadak, Harvard University associate professor and proliferation expert Matthew Bunn, and MIT Energy Initiative director Ernest Moniz--all favored more nuclear power.

They also agreed that the U.S. should fund more research and development, particularly around long-term solutions to radioactive waste. They said that current methods give the U.S. time to develop new storage technologies.

Advocates of nuclear often point out that other countries, such as France and Japan, are reprocessing spent fuel from nuclear reactors, which allows them to essentially draw more energy from the original uranium.

But rather than pursue existing fuel reprocessing technologies, Bunn, Moniz, and Kadak said that the U.S. should take time now to develop different "advanced fuel cycle" technologies. The existing process is expensive and poses greater nuclear proliferation risks, said Bunn.

"Overall I would argue that those who are in favor of a bright future for nuclear power should be against near-term reprocessing of nuclear fuel," he said.

Today's dry cask storage method, where spent fuel is put in underground bunkers, can work for decades, the panelists said. "Future technologies may change that picture. We don't know today what the best fuel cycle for nuclear fuels will be," Bunn said.

The panelists agreed that there should be some sort of underground storage for nuclear wastes, such as Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which the Obama administration recently decided to stop funding. At the very least, that decision has opened up a "national discussion" on how to handle nuclear wastes, said Forsberg.

In the meantime, the industry should design nuclear power systems that address spent fuel, said Moniz, who characterized today's strategy as "kicking the can down the road."

"Long-term managed storage, by which I mean century timescale...should be viewed as an integral part of a waste management system," he said.

Moniz also said that new government policies for managing existing spent fuel are needed to prevent proliferation. "Today we have about 270 tons of separated plutonium essentially in storage in multiple countries. That's about 30,000 significant quantities. Not a pretty picture," he said.

All panelists agreed that establishing consistent policies are required for the growth of the nuclear energy industry. "Political stability is very, very important to solve the nuclear waste problem," said Kadak.

Growing interest
Nuclear power plants produce almost 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S. and are suitable for "baseload power," or supplying electricity reliably at peak times. But despite applications to build 26 new plants, no new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. for decades.

Senator Carper argued that the U.S. needs a nuclear industry revival to replace aging fleets and to meet growing electricity demand. He called the problem of nuclear waste handling "the elephant in the room."

Even venture capitalists and start-ups are looking to invest in different forms of nuclear power. Colorado-based Hyperion Power is developing relatively small-scale nuclear reactors, which it hopes to sell for $25 million or $30 million a piece. By contrast, construction of a new large-scale nuclear plant can be more than $10 billion.

Fuel or waste? MIT's nuclear waste panel from left: Charles Forsberg, Matthew Bunn, Ernest Moniz, Andrew Kadak, and on right, senator Thomas Carper. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Interest in nuclear power has grown in the past few years, in part because nuclear reactors don't produce carbon emissions.

MIT's updated nuclear power report said that for nuclear power to be considered a viable method of curbing carbon emissions, there needs to be construction done at massive scale in coming decades--on the order of one terawatt worth of capacity, according to Moniz, or about 1,000 new large power plants.

The study also found that the cost of building new nuclear power plants has gone up faster than the cost of building new coal or natural gas plants.

Moniz, one of the study's authors, recommended that the U.S. build new nuclear power facilities and invest on the order of $500 million a year on research for advanced fuel cycles and other nuclear technologies, such as different types of reactors.