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MIT Says Lack of Fuel Could Limit Nuclear Power Expansion
While U.S. utilities are gearing up for an expected renaissance for nuclear power, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is warning that fuel supply constraints could send these nuclear power plants into the dark ages. The lack of global investment in uranium mines and the facilities to convert uranium into commercial fuel has left a gap between the potential increase in demand for nuclear energy and the ability to supply fuel for it, according to Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at MIT's Center for International Studies. According to MIT, the mismatch in supply and projected demand is also boosting the price of the fuel: only a few years ago uranium inventories were being sold at $10 per pound, while the current price is $85 per pound.
The U.S. supply of nuclear fuel is mostly imported, coming from Russia, Australia, Canada, Namibia, and, most recently, Kazakhstan. The United States relies on Russia for half its fuel under a deal that is converting about 20,000 Russian nuclear weapons into fuel for U.S. nuclear power plants. That deal will end in 2013, leaving a substantial supply gap for the United States, according to MIT. Meanwhile, China, India, and Russia have plans for massive deployments of nuclear power and are trying to lock up supplies from countries on which the United States has traditionally relied. Neff is calling for massive new investments in uranium mining and processing facilities. See the MIT press release.
DOE's approach to the supply problem is its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), which involves building recycling facilities for spent nuclear fuel. In January, DOE awarded $10 million to commercial and public consortia to examine 11 sites in eight states at which such facilities might be built. But utilities are already pressing ahead, as DOE recently commended the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for awarding an Early Site Permit (ESP) to Exelon Generation Company for a proposed nuclear plant in central Illinois, and on March 27th commended the NRC for issuing another ESP to Entergy Corporation for a proposed nuclear plant in Mississippi. The ESPs are valid for 20 years and can be used in conjunction with a subsequent combined Construction and Operating License to build and operate a new nuclear plant. See the DOE press releases on the GNEP and the ESPs for Exelon and Entergy.