Is Nuclear Power Reaching Its Sunset Years?

Publish date: September 22, 2003

Written by: Charles Digges

A recently released Massachusetts Institute of Technology report argues that nuclear energy could play a prominent role in future energy production aimed at reducing climate change and carbon dioxide emissions, but warns that high costs, unsolved radioactive waste dilemmas, conflicting fuel cycle philosophies and proliferation risks facing the nuclear industry could unplug it from the world’s power grid for good.

The demise of the nuclear industry as a whole could happen as soon as the end of the century, the report says, if these issues are not satisfactorily addressed within the next decade.

Chief among these issues are high costs and waste dilemmas, and the so-called closed nuclear fuel cycle—an environmentally dangerous practice whereby spent nuclear fuel, or SNF, is reprocessed for reactor grade plutonium and uranium for further use or enrichment. Russia has been an adherent of the closed fuel cycle since the inception of its nuclear programme, and continues to reprocess SNF, despite costs and environmental degradation. The United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany and Japan also reprocess SNF—though Germany makes use of “once through” methodology as well.

The United States also reprocessed SNF until the practice was abandoned as too costly and environmentally unsound by the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Ever since, the US policy has been to support the open or “once through” cycle, which means SNF, once unloaded from the reactor, is stored for eventual permanent burial. Construction of the controversial Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada is one step in this direction.

There are, however, murmurs within the administration of President George Bush, according to Washington officials, that the United States is considering dropping its aversion to reprocessing and plutonium-based power production methods.

The Report’s Authors
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, report was prepared by an interdisciplinary group co-chaired by John Deutch, former director of the CIA and deputy of defence, and Ernest Moniz, former undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration. John Holdren, principal investigator of Harvard University’s Managing the Atom project, was also a part of the group that prepared the report.

The group studied the economics of the nuclear industry, evaluated its safety, addressed non-proliferation issues and examined the implications of possible large-scale growth of the nuclear industry in the near future. In its report, the group says that “over the next 50 years, the best choice to meet the challenges to the nuclear industry is the open, once-through fuel cycle.” The study also makes a broad range of other recommendations, including alternative sources of energy.

Forecasts for Growth of Nuclear Power—Is It a Viable Solution?
Despite the safety and economic hurdles to the nuclear industry—which the report describes at length—the document nonetheless recommends further use of nuclear power, if it can overcome its fundamental cost inefficiency and waste crisis, which otherwise would be left up to future generations to solve.

In 2002, according to the report, nuclear power supplied 20 percent of electricity consumed in the United States and 17 percent worldwide. But the industry forecasts a mere 5-percent increase of nuclear power generation by 2020, and even this estimate is questionable, says the report. Meanwhile, the report said, worldwide electricity consumption could grow by as much as 75 percent.

This jump in electricity use therefore casts a dim light on the future of nuclear energy, the report’s authors contend, unless the four known problems haunting the nuclear industry can be solved.

  • Costs: Nuclear power has higher overall lifetime costs, as compared to natural gas;

  • Safety: After the near meltdown in 1979 at the US nuclear power plant Three Mile Island, and the explosion at the former Soviet Union’s Chernobyl in 1986, the threats to the environment and the health of the population are well documented, while viable solutions are lacking;
  • Proliferation: Nuclear power entails potential security risks, most notably, the misuse of commercial facilities with criminal intentions to obtain technology and materials applicable in nuclear weapons. Fuel cycles involving chemical reprocessing of spent fuel to separate weapons-usable plutonium and uranium are particularly troubling, especially as these technologies continue to spread to nations presenting a non-proliferation risk;

  • Waste: Nuclear power has unresolved challenges in long-term management of radioactive waste. Viable solutions have not been found, nor is there any hope that they will be soon. Even if the Yucca Mountain repository proves useful in managing high-level radioactive waste and SNF, it will only ease—not solve—US problems in waste storage, especially if nuclear power use in the US and other countries grows significantly.

At current, the report asserts, nuclear power is not an economical choice against its fossil fuel and natural gas competitors—to say nothing of alternative energies. Another factor underpinning nuclear energy’s economic foundation is that the industry requires—unlike other energies—heavy government oversight because of the safety, proliferation and waste concerns associated with it.

The Closed Nuclear Fuel Cycle
The authors of the MIT report assert that the open, or “once through” cycle, has major cost, proliferation and fuel cycle safety advantages over a closed cycle. According to the report, there is enough natural uranium ore worldwide to fuel the deployment of 1000 reactors over the next fifty years.

The once-through methodology remains relatively cheap and safe until these uranium ore deposits run dry and nuclear countries begin to reprocess their SNF for plutonium, an unnatural by-product of burning uranium. The authors say that the once-through fuel cycle best meets the need of keeping the nuclear process comparatively cheap and resistant to proliferation risks.

However, when uranium ore becomes scarce, the costs of the open cycle versus the closed cycle may go up. Nonetheless—because of the myriad risks associated with the closed cycle—the MIT report recommends that the nuclear industry and governments worldwide continue to use the open cycle rather than the closed cycle because of high costs involved in SNF processing and the development of new thermal, or fast neutron, reactors. The report urges that research and analysis should aim for technologies that do not produce weapons-usable materials during normal operations, which include uranium, fissile products like plutonium and minor actinides.

The closed fuel cycle currently practiced in Western Europe and Japan does not meet this criterion, the report stresses. Therefore, the report says, fuel cycle analysis, research, development, and demonstration efforts must include explicit analyses of proliferation risks and measures defined to minimise proliferation risks.

In a scenario where a worldwide growth of the nuclear industry based on the open fuel cycle occurs, the report says that international spent fuel storage agreements—which would significantly curtail proliferation risks—should be implemented within the next decade.

Prognosis for Nuclear Power
Nuclear power will succeed in the long run only if it has a lower cost than competing technologies, says the report. This is especially true as electricity markets become progressively less subject to economic regulation in many parts of the world.

Inevitably, there will be a high degree of governmental involvement in nuclear power—even in market economies—to regulate safety, waste, and proliferation risk, the authors say.

Too much government involvement is likely to make nuclear power expensive and non-competitive, the report states, and too little government oversight is a risk to safety, secure waste management, and non-proliferation. International cooperation is also critical for the effective management of these issues, especially proliferation, the authors write. Therefore, they assert, the industrial structure in each country with nuclear energy capabilities must be compatible with whatever international norms are adopted.

Safety: There’s No Such Thing as Risk-Free Nuclear Power
According to the report’s authors, there isn’t a nuclear power plant in the world—nor could there ever be—that is entirely free of risks. The reason for this is two-fold: technical possibilities and limitations and human fallibility. Safe operation of any nuclear power source, say the authors, requires effective regulation, a management committed to safety, and a skilled work force.

But the biggest risk in nuclear power, perhaps, is that there is still no successful method of disposing of high-level radioactive waste anywhere in the world. The SNF from nuclear power plants contains radioactive materials that remain dangerous to human health and the environment for thousands of years, and current methods of storage used worldwide cannot carry this nuclear baggage for that long.

Geologic repositories—like the one being attempted in the United States at Yucca Mountain—would be capable of safely isolating the waste from the biosphere. However—as the Yucca project is proving—siting and building geologic repositories is a costly and highly demanding undertaking that places huge burdens on regulatory and political institutions, as well as on the authorities who would be responsible for running them.

Russia has on several occasions come up as a place in which to build an international repository. One such effort is being considered by a US-based group called the Non-Proliferation Trust, or NPT, a private company that would sell space for high-level radioactive waste in a repository the trust would build.

But several complications stemmed from that idea, most notably from Russia’s Ministry of Atomic Energy, or Minatom, which would be happy to take the spent fuel, but would like—contrary to NPT’s wishes—to eventually reprocess it, thus making the plan unlikely.

In order that proliferation risks be taken out of the worldwide nuclear power equation, the report recommends that the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, be granted sweeping powers to focus on safeguards—which generally include surveillance devices in nuclear facilities—as well as the automatic right to carry out snap inspections not only of declared nuclear facilities but also of suspected nuclear sites. The latter is something the IAEA currently does not have the right to do without a given country’s permission.

At current, 37 of the IAEA’s member states, including Canada and the United Kingdom, have given the IAEA permission to conduct short-notice inspections in their nuclear facilities by signing the so-called Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. In the case of Iran, much of the imbroglio surrounding the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme concerns international pressure on Tehran to agree to sign the protocol.

The report further says that greater attention must be focused on proliferation risks at the beginning of the fuel cycle process, especially enrichment technologies. IAEA safeguards should base their control on continuous materials protection, says the report. This would mean control and accounting of nuclear materials throughout the process, from their manufacture to their disposal, using surveillance and containment systems both in facilities and during transportation, the authors assert. The IAEA should have surveillance and oversight of all key points in the fuel cycle process, says the report.

Sunset on the Nuclear Industry?
If current policies regarding waste disposal, expensive research into closed fuel cycles, inconsistent regulatory practices, and wide-scale proliferation risks persist, however, nuclear power is likely to decline and disappear altogether from the world’s collective electricity supply during this century, the report says.

In most developed countries, the use of nuclear power is not expected to expand and, in many of these countries, including the United States, nuclear power has been purposely excluded from policies aimed at the stabilisation and reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, the report notes.

Building and running new nuclear power plants appears to be more expensive than using alternate sources of base load power generation—most notably coal and natural gas—when both capital and operating costs are taken into account.

After 2020, if significant investments do not materialise, the report states, the nuclear power supply will decline as existing reactors are retired. South Korea, India, Iran and Russia are still constructing nuclear units, despite dim forecasts for the industry. With the exception of Finland, more developed countries, however, have stopped building new nuclear plants and seem to be seeking safer and cheaper energy sources. In the United States, the last nuclear plant order was contracted out in 1979. In Europe, where anti-nuclear sentiment is gradually growing, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden are officially committed to nuclear power phase-out.