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Study Examines Economics of Used Fuel Management Options

Oct. 17, 2013—A new international study assessing the costs of used fuel management options has concluded that direct disposal of used nuclear fuel after a single use in a reactor is less expensive than recycling, but not necessarily by much. The differences are within the uncertainty band, which means that none of the used fuel strategies examined emerged as a clear winner economically.

The study, “The Economics of the Back End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle,” conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Nuclear Energy Agency, also found that the total cost of the nuclear fuel cycle—from uranium mining to the ultimate disposal of used fuel—is significantly more sensitive to the price of natural uranium than to the future costs of a deep geological repository.

The study assessed the entire cost of the nuclear fuel cycle for three current and potential strategies for managing the “back end,” which encompasses what happens to nuclear fuel after it has been used in a reactor. It assessed the strategies in a broad context to identify the major factors that would influence costs in any country.

The most common approach, currently pursued by most countries with nuclear energy programs, is “direct disposal” in a deep geological repository after one use in a reactor. The second most prevalent, as practiced by several countries in Europe and Japan, is “partial recycling,” in which used fuel is reprocessed into mixed oxide or reprocessed uranium oxide fuel for a single use in existing light water reactors.

A third potential strategy, not yet commercially available, would take recycling a step further, using irradiated mixed oxide or reprocessed uranium oxide fuel in fast reactors for an additional reduction in the radioactive inventory destined for disposal. OECD noted that all of these strategies would leave material that requires final disposal. “There is general agreement that deep geological repositories offer the best solution in this regard,” the report said.

OECD offered three “general observations” based on the study:

  • “The fuel cycle cost component associated with the management of [spent nuclear fuel] is a relatively small fraction of the total levelized cost of electricity generation.” Levelized cost represents the per-kilowatt-hour cost of building and operating a generating plant over its operating lifetime.
  • “The total fuel cycle costs calculated for the reference case are lower for the open fuel cycle option,” in which nuclear fuel is used only once. “However, the difference between the total fuel cycle costs of the three options considered … are within the uncertainties.”
  • “The specific costs decrease with the size of the system. Thus, there may be economic benefits in sharing different fuel cycle facilities between countries/utilities.”

Among its recommendations, OECD said that countries committed to the ongoing use of nuclear energy should compare the costs of different approaches to managing used nuclear fuel based on their impact on the total fuel-cycle cost.