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DOE’s Blurred Nuclear Vision

A consistent strategy is the key to a successful nuclear future.

In the mid-1990s, many people were ready to write off the nuclear industry. Nuclear power plants were being shut down as troublesome and uneconomical. Four of the nine plants operating in New England closed; as CEO of Yankee Atomic Electric Company, I presided over the closure of the Yankee Rowe plant in western Massachusetts. Neglect in Washington, across several administrations, contributed to this state of affairs. Under President Clinton, support for nuclear-engineering programs was cut for several years.

But while the future of nuclear power was apparently dimming, nuclear utilities improved operations and made money with existing plants. And then the Clinton administration began to quietly renew funding for nuclear research. This resurgence of support was largely driven by global-warming concerns. Although no one was seriously considering opening new nuclear plants in the near term, the U.S. Department of Energy began examining what technologies would be needed in the next 20 to 30 years.

The resulting Generation IV Nuclear Initiative was launched in 2000. An international team identified a need for near-term solutions, so the DOE then established “Nuclear Power 2010” to help make new plants operational by that year.

In 2003, the department announced the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative to find better ways of processing and utilizing nuclear waste. But the department’s new initiatives kept coming. The Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) project was supposed to demonstrate not only electricity generation but also hydrogen production, as part of President Bush’s Hydrogen Fuel Initiative. This year, the DOE unveiled the latest in its series of initiatives: the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (or GNEP; see “The Best Nuclear Option”), a plan for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel while preventing proliferation.

Each of these initiatives redirected DOE labs to new missions they lacked the funding to fulfill. The national labs struggled to keep up. Universities saw projects dropped. Programs that were beginning to make progress were canceled or put on hold.

And one can only imagine the impact on established programs at the national labs. Once a program is stopped, restarting it becomes difficult; once money is diverted, it is hard to get back.

The DOE has changed direction so many times in such a short period that it is in danger of going nowhere. What should it do? Given finite resources, focus on the top priorities. Without a nuclear renaissance – which means real orders for new plants – there will be less need for GNEP’s novel solution to the waste problem. The department should spend resources to ensure that a renaissance actually occurs. In other words, help with engineering, to lessen the high initial costs. Do not discourage and confuse the utilities; instead, ensure that a repository will be in place to handle nuclear waste, in whatever form it takes. Establish a strategy for deploying the next generation of nuclear plants.

Finally, conduct the necessary research before choosing technologies for reducing the volume and radioactivity of spent fuel, as MIT’s 2003 study “The Future of Nuclear Power” recommended. And above all, stay on one course long enough for limited resources to be spent wisely – and not wasted by more changes in direction.

Andrew C. Kadak is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT.

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