A group of MIT faculty members and a Harvard colleague are undertaking an 18-month study of the future of nuclear energy.
Institute Professor John M. Deutch of chemistry and Professor Ernest Moniz of physics are co-chairing the study; both are former undersecretaries of the US Department of Energy .
Other participants include Paul Gray, former MIT president and professor of electrical engineering and computer science; Professor Paul Joskow of economics, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research; Richard Lester, professor of nuclear engineering and director of the Industrial Performance Center; Neil Todreas, professor of nuclear engineering; and John Holdren, professor of environmental policy and director of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government program on Science, Technology and Public Policy.
An advisory committee composed of national environmntal, industry and political leaders will be formed to assist the study effort. Support for the study comes from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment and the Provost's Office.
Although nuclear power will remain an important source of electricity, it is expected to decline slowly, relative to other sources of electricity over the next two decades. The principal motivation to reconsider the nuclear option is that nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel resources does not impair air quality and does not release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, Deutch said.
The group will study the conditions needed to make nuclear energy a viable technology option for meeting a significant part of America's and the world's future electricity needs. Nuclear energy will not be a credible future technology option unless serious limitations are overcome. The study will assess whether it is possible or desirable to resolve these limitations. However, if the nuclear option is pursued, the programs and procedures of both industry and governments will need to undergo major technical and institutional changes, Deutch said.
Nuclear power must be economically competitive with other energy supply and efficiency options for meeting future power needs. The economic competitiveness of nuclear power will be determined both by technology advances and by market and policy changes such as electricity deregulation, future natural gas prices and policies adopted to control greenhouse gas emissions.
Practical short-term and long-term actions must be developed and implemented for dealing with radioactive waste, the group noted. Nuclear reactors and the associated nuclear fuel cycle must be safe and essentially preclude the risk of a major release of radioactivity to the environment, including from terrorist attacks. The proliferation risk of the diversion of nuclear material or technology from the commercial nuclear fuel cycle to make nuclear weapons must also be essentially eliminated through a combination of institutional and technical means.
The MIT nuclear study will outline measures that should and should not be taken in both the short and long term.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 6, 2002.