According to a new MIT study, achieving a low-carbon-emission future at a reasonable cost and minimal social impact requires a mix of power sources, with nuclear power as a major component. "The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World" by the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) says that trying to produce a radically low-carbon economy without nuclear reactors would cost two to four times as much as one with.
In the quest to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change, the tendency in the past 20 years has been to concentrate on so-called alternative energy sources with special emphasis on wind and solar power. And while such sources do have many advantages, they also suffer from a number of disadvantages, such as lack of reliability, a large geographical footprint, negative environmental impact, and high operating costs, as well as a reliance on conventional fossil fuel plants to maintain reliable electrical power services.
Much of this is a matter of intense debate, but one big problem is that if the world is to invest in a policy of deep decarbonatization by the year 2050, there is a real chance it can only be done at either massive expense or the price of much less electricity being available at higher costs, lower standards of living in both the developed and developing world, and even a shrinking global economy.
To prevent this from happening, the MIT study says that nuclear power with its zero-carbon emissions must play a much larger role in electricity generation on a global scale. Today, the total share of global nuclear power as a primary energy source is a mere five percent, with very little growth in the West and some countries actually abandoning the technology.
Based on a study of existing Light-Water Reactor (LWR) projects around the world, the MIT report says that the primary obstacle to a large-scale reactor building program is cost – not only the short-term undercutting of nuclear by the natural gas boom, but also through government regulation, safety concerns, political prejudice, and industry inefficiencies.
To overcome this, the researchers suggest that the nuclear industry move away from its one-off reactor projects, with each new plant being an exercise in reinventing the plutonium wheel and focusing more on standardized designs and components being constructed by a skilled workforce under experienced contractors in a factory, mass-production setting, such as has been suggested for modular nuclear reactors.
In addition, the study recommends that new, advanced reactor designs use passive safety systems and inherently stable chemical, physical, and thermal systems that don't require outside power to operate. Ideally, these systems would be automatic and should be subject to internationally agreed upon regulations to reduce application costs and improve investor confidence.
On the policy side, the researchers say that the nuclear sector needs a level playing field with other low-carbon producers and that nuclear energy should not be dismissed out of hand. Instead, governments should provide nuclear energy producers with financial incentives similar to those given to wind and solar projects to produce a competitive environment.
In the same vein, the study also outlines the need for governments to allow for the building of more prototype reactors and the sharing of regulatory and research and development costs to encourage more technical innovation.
The interdisciplinary study released by the MIT Energy Initiative is available here (PDF).
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