Enough Uranium for Now, Analysts Say

Barrels of nuclear waste await shipment after processing in Aiken, S.C.,
Brett Flashnick for The New York Times Barrels of nuclear waste await shipment after processing in Aiken, S.C.,

There is enough uranium available to fuel 10 times as many reactors as exist today, even if each of the new ones ran for 100 years, according to a new report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The report said that uranium supplies would not impose constraints on new reactor construction “for much of this century at least.” But it did cast doubt on the wisdom of a different kind of construction that is now going on, of factories that can take the plutonium from spent fuel and prepare it for reuse. That is probably not worth it, the report suggests.

The study is part of a series that M.I.T. has produced in the last few years on all aspects of energy, including reactor construction, the future of coal and the of natural gas.

Its release comes when the United States effectively has no policy on used nuclear fuel. In the early 1980’s,Congress decided that fuel would be used once and then buried. But President Obama told the Energy Department to stop work on a proposed repository for used fuel at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert, 100 miles from Las Vegas, and moved to cut the financing.

Even while Yucca was still under development, one question was whether the spent fuel was a waste or a resource. On Thursday, one of the M.I.T. researchers referred to the waste as possibly “equivalent to a super strategic petroleum reserve.”

The reason is that in the course of operation, reactors consume uranium but produce plutonium, which can also be used as fuel. France uses chemical and mechanical processes to recover this plutonium and reuse it; the United States has seldom done this with fuel from civilian reactors because the plutonium can be used in weapons.

The United States now has a surplus of military plutonium, and the Energy Department is building a factory that will turn that into fuel for civilian reactors. But Ernest J. Moniz, who was undersecretary of energy in the Clinton administration and is now director of the M.I.T. Energy Initiative, said that since reactors that consume plutonium can also make it, “total inventories are not materially different” when the plutonium is reused. He said this was not a good “near term approach.”

In fact, the study discouraged all quick approaches. When reactor operators and governments make arrangements for storing spent fuel before its final disposition, they should plan for 100 years, the report said, although the actual disposition might be quicker.

The Energy Department was supposed to start taking delivery of spent fuel from reactors in 1998 but now has no idea when it will begin doing so, and the utilities have won billions of dollars in damage judgments against the government as a result. The report suggested that the fuel be stored on an interim basis and that fuel at sites where reactors are no longer operating be centralized to cut costs.

The tasks of storage and of finding a repository should be given to a new “quasi-government waste management organization,” it said.

Mr. Moniz and other authors of the study described it before a large crowd at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. Not everyone in the audience liked it.

Thomas Cochran, a nuclear expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, suggested that such an organization might embark on a costly and impractical recycling program. But Lake Barrett, a former director the Energy Department’s Yucca program, said that a quasi-governmental organization would have an easier time establishing trust with a local community than the Energy Department had and could sign contracts and make long-term promises.

The Energy Department, on the other hand, is dependent on year-by-year appropriations by Congress, he noted, and policy tends to change when presidential administrations change, as it did when Mr. Obama succeeded George W. Bush.

The estimate of enough uranium to run 10 times as many reactors for 100 years was given by Charles W. Forsberg, the executive director of the study. While the price of uranium might be driven up by 50 percent, uranium represents only 2 to 4 percent of the price of electricity from a reactor, he said, so a 50 percent increase would mean only another 1 or 2 percent increase in the price of electricity.

But some challenged that conclusion. Julian J. Steyn, a consultant at Energy Resources International who writes often about uranium, said it was based on the assumption that areas identified as similar to places where uranium had been found would also turn out to have uranium in similar amounts. Nonetheless, there is at least enough to last until mid-century, he said, and “we have 40 years to find more.’’

By MATTHEW L. WALD/NYT

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