Fukushima Crisis Shouldn't Blunt Long-Term Investment in Nuclear Power, Says MIT Report

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

A long-awaited report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) sees nuclear power as an important component of the U.S. energy supply, a message not affected by last month's nuclear disaster in Japan.

The report's conclusions, released in a preview last year, are that light water reactors, the mainstay of the U.S. fleet, will remain the "preferred option" for U.S. nuclear plants for decades. The report calls for a long-term spent fuel U.S. repository but says the country can get by for the short term with interim storage of fuel rods at plants or other facilities. By instituting a carbon price, the report says, "nuclear becomes either competitive or lower-cost than either coal or natural gas."

Cost studies by faculty scientists at MIT provide the underpinning of the findings, which suggest that advanced reactor systems in the future might be able to recycle waste. But it says the U.S. Department of Energy's research program on nuclear energy, budgeted in 2011 for $737 million, needs to grow to at least $1 billion per year to explore more advanced conceptions of nuclear power.

The report appears ahead of one from the White House Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future due out in June. And it doesn't address the Fukushima crisis triggered by the 11 March earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Had the panel had time to do so, says MIT nuclear engineer Charles Forsberg, who served as executive director on the project, "I don't think it would have changed any of the major conclusions of our report. We're looking at long term fuel cycle issues versus short term safety issues, which are what came out of Fukushima."

The new report is considered a good guide to what the influential Blue Ribbon panel is expected to say on issues related to the fuel cycle.

Some of the Blue Ribbon commissioners were part of the MIT panel's advisory board and provided extensive input. "We didn't hear any loud shouting or screaming from them when we briefed them on the report's conclusions," says Forsberg. It's not known whether the Blue Ribbon panel, which is holding its cards close, will include an analysis of the Fukushima disaster or recommendations that stem from it. The panel's next public meeting is on 13 May, but no agenda has been posted.

A "Postscript" to the MIT report, added since last fall's preliminary report, says that the Fukushima event will probably make nuclear power more expensive and focus more attention on safety and spent fuel. But it makes no related policy recommendations, saying the Japanese disaster only strengthens the report's call for more research on spent fuel storage.

"We're very explicit in this report. We say, 'You need a spent fuel policy,' " says Forsberg. Highly packed spent fuel pools at the Japanese facility have caught fire, lost coolant, and released unknown quantities of radioactive material, underscoring the need to remove as much fuel from overcrowded pools as possible. It notes that a storage facility that could hold spent fuel for several decades while it cools could free up space in reactors' pools, lowering the risk of overheating, loss of coolant, and fires. "In that sense, the report reinforces the Fukushima [message] on spent fuel," says Forsberg. "We're saying, 'You know, guys, this is one more reason you need a spent fuel policy.' "

The 258-page report included input from more than a dozen graduate student theses in physics, economics, and engineering.

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