MIT Energy Initiative: Nuclear may play vital role in climate solutions

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How can the world achieve the deep carbon emissions reductions that are necessary to slow or reverse the impacts of climate change? The authors of a new MIT study say that unless nuclear energy is meaningfully incorporated into the global mix of low-carbon energy technologies, the challenge of climate change will be much more difficult and costly to solve. For nuclear energy to take its place as a major low-carbon energy source, however, issues of cost and policy need to be addressed.

In “The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World,” released by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) on Sept. 3, the authors analyze the reasons for the current global stall of nuclear energy capacity — which currently accounts for only 5 percent of global primary energy production — and discuss measures that could be taken to arrest and reverse that trend.

The study group, led by MIT researchers in collaboration with colleagues from Idaho National Laboratory and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is presenting its findings and recommendations at events in London, Paris, and Brussels this week, followed by events on Sept. 25 in Washington, and on Oct. 9 in Tokyo. MIT graduate and undergraduate students and postdocs, as well as faculty from Harvard University and members of various think tanks, also contributed to the study as members of the research team.

“Our analysis demonstrates that realizing nuclear energy’s potential is essential to achieving a deeply decarbonized energy future in many regions of the world,” says study co-chair Jacopo Buongiorno, the TEPCO Professor and associate department head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT. He adds, “Incorporating new policy and business models, as well as innovations in construction that may make deployment of cost-effective nuclear power plants more affordable, could enable nuclear energy to help meet the growing global demand for energy generation while decreasing emissions to address climate change.”

The study team notes that the electricity sector in particular is a prime candidate for deep decarbonization. Global electricity consumption is on track to grow 45 percent by 2040, and the team’s analysis shows that the exclusion of nuclear from low-carbon scenarios could cause the average cost of electricity to escalate dramatically.

“Understanding the opportunities and challenges facing the nuclear energy industry requires a comprehensive analysis of technical, commercial, and policy dimensions,” says Robert Armstrong, director of MITEI and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. “Over the past two years, this team has examined each issue, and the resulting report contains guidance policymakers and industry leaders may find valuable as they evaluate options for the future.”

The report discusses recommendations for nuclear plant construction, current and future reactor technologies, business models and policies, and reactor safety regulation and licensing. The researchers find that changes in reactor construction are needed to usher in an era of safer, more cost-effective reactors, including proven construction management practices that can keep nuclear projects on time and on budget.

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