DOE Light Water Reactor Fuel Utilization Improvement Program

EMD-81-51: Published: Mar 23, 1981. Publicly Released: Apr 27, 1981.

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GAO was asked to evaluate the Department of Energy's (DOE) light water reactor fuel utilization program. The objectives of the review were to ascertain how reasonable the DOE goals are; what progress DOE has had in meeting the goals; and what, if any, technical or regulatory problems need to be resolved. The original goals of the fuel utilization program were to demonstrate nuclear fuel savings improvements by 1988 that would permit utilities to reduce fuel requirements by 15 percent and to demonstrate further improvements by the year 2000 that could result in an additional 15-percent fuel savings. When DOE set up the program, it estimated that these savings, if realized, could extend the Nation's uranium reserves by 5 to 8 years.

Although the DOE program is still at an early stage and only limited program results are available, GAO found that: (1) the 1988 DOE goal is reasonable since a large part of the short-term demonstration program consists of proving that existing fuels can be used longer and working on new fuel savings designs and other improvements; (2) many utilities will probably use a major DOE short-term improvement, longer burnup fuel, to accomplish their own economic objectives of minimizing power generation costs at the expense of maximizing fuel savings; (3) how extensively the commercial nuclear industry will implement fuel savings improvements is uncertain at this time; (4) a draft study assessing potential regulatory issues has concluded that there are no regulatory problems which might preclude the widespread use of the DOE short-term improvments; and (5) the program will not foreclose a future option of reprocessing light water reactor spent fuel and recycling recovered uranium and plutonium or of deploying breeder reactors. Additionally, GAO found that, although the key to the success of the program is industry implementation, it is unlikely that DOE will realize its fuel savings goals in an absolute sense if the present trend toward longer intervals between refuelings continues.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status:

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should defer spending research and development funds on fuel saving improvements which are at best only marginally attractive with reprocessing and recycling until a final decision is made on reprocessing and recycling policy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status:

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should carefully consider the prospects for industry implementation to achieve maximum fuel savings and give priority to those improvements which offer both the highest fuel savings and the best chance of implementation to achieve those savings.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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