Energy

MIT study sees nuclear power as integral to a low-carbon future

MIT study sees nuclear power a...
A newly release MIT study looks at the role nuclear power could play in a low-carbon economy
A newly release MIT study looks at the role nuclear power could play in a low-carbon economy
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A newly release MIT study looks at the role nuclear power could play in a low-carbon economy
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A newly release MIT study looks at the role nuclear power could play in a low-carbon economy

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).

Source: MIT

12 comments
Bob Stuart
This makes me very sad. I used to have a lot of respect for MIT.
aki009
This "initiative" is no different than what most sane people have been saying for the past 20 years. Unfortunately that gets lost in the politics of those who want to push their agendas, and I don't see how that will ever change. As to standardized designs, those have existed for some time. The real cost drivers have not been the plans, but regulations that treat every project as its own separate entity. Easily half of the cost of a nuclear power plant in the US goes towards duplicating paperwork and financing projects that take decades instead of a few years as they should (and used to). But then again, all of this is intentional feet dragging by those who are dead set against nuclear power in any form. The old joke in Germany in the 80's used to be "Who needs nuclear power? My electricity comes out of the wall socket." ... It seems nothing has changed in 40 years.
piperTom
Thanks to MIT for taking a practical, unbiased approach. While I still favor thorium reactor tech, we need to look at all options without this irrational fear of anything with "nuclear" in the name. The worst option is doing without abundant energy.
fb36
I absolutely agree for the need for (open) world standard reactor designs. Also agree to "The real cost drivers have not been the plans, but regulations that treat every project as its own separate entity". I also think our world needs much more clean power than most people realize! Electricity is not just needed for running homes/offices/shops etc, but also for all kinds of industrial production! For example, if we had lots of (clean) electricity, lots of "dream" construction materials like titanium, aluminum etc would become a lot cheaper! Imagine all kinds of buildings, vehicles, city infrastructures, roads which are durable for centuries (so almost never require replacements)!
jlbtc
I believe MIT is letting itself being used by the Nuclear lobby. Today it is clearly proven that wind and solar are producing power at much lower cost than any of other available technologies. Nuclear has not even resolved the problem of safe storage of the nuclear waste and the technology is NOT "fail safe". This violates a basic engineering principle, which wouldn't even allow application of such a technology. Today the public is facing extraordinary cost from nuclear reactors, which are shifted to the public and not accounted for in the cost calculations. If leading decision makers would just apply a massive build out of solar and wind, the residual power needed to compensate for fluctuations in production would be less than 20% of the energy demand during a year and could be easily covered by other available RE sources; and may be complimented by a small residual supply through LNG. Sorry for MIT. With this "study" you disqualify your entire highly reputable institution instead of moving forward to really move into a sustainable direction. Kind regards Juergen Lorenz, M.Sc. (Process Engineering) & MBA
Kiffit
The critique of renewables put here is reminiscent of coal industry claims about 'baseload', that is constantly being debunked by energy analysts, but to no effect. Where does the claim that renewables produce significant negative impacts come from, especially when compared with nuke plants? And who says nuke plants are clean or all that reliable & safe, or even cost efficient compared to renewables? This article has a whiff of nuke industry publicrelationspeak about it that can only be dealt with by opening the caims being made here to some more diverse energy expert opinion.
Tom Swift
If there is a problem of excess CO2, then part of the blame goes to everyone who jumped on the "No Nukes" hysteria after TMI. Instead of trying to make plants safer the mob-rule demanded shutting them down. They did not consider the consequences. People still demanded more and more electric power, the only economically acceptable alternative was coal. So instead of a few nuke plants dozens of coal fired plants were built, and here we are.
Daishi
They acknowledge that nuclear costs more than solar and wind but stand behind the efficiency saying it would be sustainable. What is cost measuring though? Currency is a representation of labor and resources. If something is really expensive it's also a sign of high resources required to do it. Solar and wind are cheaper than nuclear now and getting cheaper. Further more what aren't they measuring? There are about 450 nuclear power plants in the world. There have not been a lot of large scale accidents but they certainly exist. There may not be a lot of Chernobyl and Fukushima incidents but what it the cost (in $/MWh of LCOE) of losing an entire city and the associated cleanup? The cost of the Fukushima disaster is said to cost $180bn USD. So there is a half a percent chance at having a ~$200 billion meltdown not being measured into nuclear $/MWh). Half a percent of $200 billion is still a billion dollars averaged out per nuclear power plant so it represents a significant amount of cost of nuclear that's not being measured in in the levelized cost (LCOE). Sure there are few direct fatalities with nuclear meltdowns (at least until they become military targets) but we probably need to consider the costs of writing off the whole city for 30-50 years when there is. Who is shouldering that burden of liability? If my local nuclear reactor melts is the power company going to buy me a new house somewhere else and move my family or stick me with those costs? I'm pretty sure I know the answer. The odds of a major disaster are high enough to be concerned. At the time Fukushima was built it was believed to be safe but in hindsight the shortcomings in the design are now obvious. As we move to newer/safer designs it's hard to know what shortcomings we may be overlooking that could seem obvious some day in the future.
Dan Lewis
Sadly surprised that thorium wasn't mentioned loud and clear. Phooey.
nono
Now this is an incredibly bad idea. As we saw in fukushima, chernobyl, three mile island and in many other close calls, all it takes to blow up a nuke plant is lack of cooling for a few hours or human error (lack of control or mistakes). Anything disabling cooling including flood or drought will also make it pop. Global warming is all about floods and droughts .. and the scarcity of food and social distruptions might also stop spare parts for plants. If the situation gets bad enough the controllers might just leave or never arrive to work. Pop-pop-pop go the nukes like popcorn