MIT releases study on nuclear energy's future

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard has released an interdisciplinary study on barriers and solutions for nuclear power as a means of reducing greenhouse gases. Institute Professor John Deutch of MIT, co-chair of the study, called it "the most comprehensive, interdisciplinary study ever conducted on the future of nuclear energy."

The report maintains that "the nuclear option should be retained precisely because it is an important carbon-free source of power."

"Fossil fuel-based electricity is projected to account for more than 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020," said Deutch. "In the U.S., 90 percent of the carbon emissions from electricity generation come from coal-fired generation, even though this accounts for only 52 percent of the electricity produced. Taking nuclear power off the table as a viable alternative will prevent the global community from achieving long-term gains in the control of carbon dioxide emissions."

But the prospects for nuclear energy are limited, the report finds, by four unresolved problems: high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental and health effects; potential security risks stemming from nuclear proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes.

The study examines a growth scenario where the present-day 360 GWe (gigawatts) of nuclear capacity worldwide is expanded to 1,000 GWe in mid-century, keeping its share of the electricity market roughly constant. Deployment in the United States would expand from about 100 GWe today to 300 GWe in mid-century. This scenario is not a prediction, but rather a study case in which nuclear power would make a significant contribution to reducing CO2 emissions.

"There is no question that the up-front costs associated with making nuclear power competitive are higher than those associated with fossil fuels," said Physics Professor Ernest Moniz, director of energy studies at MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment and co-chair of the study. "But as our study shows, there are many ways to mitigate these costs, and over time, the societal and environmental price of carbon emissions could dramatically improve the competitiveness of nuclear power."

The study offers a number of recommendations for making the nuclear energy option more viable, including:

  • Emphasizing that the "once-through" fuel cycle best meets the criteria of low costs and proliferation resistance.
  • Offering a limited-production tax credit to "first movers"--private sector investors who successfully build new nuclear plants. This tax credit also would apply to other carbon-free electricity technologies and is not paid unless the plant operates.
  • Having government more fully develop the capabilities to analyze life-cycle health and safety impacts of fuel cycle facilities.
  • Advancing a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) balanced long-term waste management research and development program.
  • Urging DOE to establish a nuclear system modeling project to collect the engineering data and perform the analysis necessary to evaluate alternative reactor concepts and fuel cycles on the basis of cost, safety, waste, and proliferation resistance. Expensive development projects should be delayed pending the outcome of this multi-year effort.
  • Giving countries that forego proliferation-risky enrichment and reprocessing activities preference to receive nuclear fuel and waste management services over nations that operate the entire fuel cycle.

The authors of the study emphasized that nuclear power is not the only non-carbon option, saying it should be pursued as a long-term option along with renewable energy sources, increased efficiency and carbon sequestration.

In addition to Deutch and Moniz, members of the study team from MIT are Professor Stephen Ansolabehere of political science; Professor Emeritus Michael Driscoll and professors Richard Lester (director of MIT's Industrial Performance Center) and Neil Todreas, all in the Department of Nuclear Engineering (Todreas also holds an appointment in the Department of Mechanical Engineering); Paul Gray, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and president emeritus of MIT; and Professor Paul Joskow of economics. Also on the team was Professor John Holdren of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

For a copy of the study, go to This study was conducted with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, MIT's Office of the Provost and MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment.

Topics: Nuclear science and engineering, Physics, Environment and energy

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