Jacopo Buongiorno, John Parsons, and Karen Dawson of MIT discuss the new Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World study, released in September. They talk about nuclear energy’s potential in the future low-carbon energy landscape, and review strategies for navigating barriers in construction costs, government policy, and community outreach. They also touch upon new technologies and innovations that are poised to impact the nuclear energy field.
Jacopo Buongiorno, professor, Nuclear Science and Engineering; study co-chair
John Parsons, faculty member, Sloan School of Management; study co-chair
Karen Dawson, PhD Candidate, Nuclear Science and Engineering; study group
On nuclear energy’s potential:
Jacopo Buongiorno: We think the world has a big problem to solve, which is climate change. The study is about assessing if nuclear can play a role in the solution of that problem. Nuclear is a primary energy source, which is used for the generation of electricity. It has three attractive features. The first is that it does not emit carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas or other air pollutants. The second is that it’s reliable and dispatchable, so it generates electricity when it’s needed, with high-capacity factors, 24/7. And the third is that it does not use a lot of natural resources, both in terms of the fuel that is required to generate electricity as well as the land that is required to build the plant.
Karen Dawson: Right now, if we look at what technologies we have available to us that can produce real grid-level, carbon-free energy, nuclear is the only option we have. We have solar and wind, but when we look at what happens when we increase the amount of installed capacity of solar and wind, it drives the cost of generating electricity up. We can see that as we eliminate nuclear as an option on the grid, it can make the costs of generating electricity three or four, or even more, times greater than what it would be if nuclear was an option.
On new innovations in the nuclear energy field:
JB: Modular construction has become a little bit of a buzzword. We dug deeper than the buzz and found that shifting work from construction sites—which tend to be fairly cumbersome and labor-intensive—to factories—which tend to be a little bit more streamlined and efficient—could indeed reduce the overall cost of delivering the plant. We also looked into innovations related to concrete. A nuclear plant of any design has a lot of reinforced concrete and anything you can do to reduce labor and material costs and the costs associated with the installation of those reinforced concrete structures can reduce the overall cost of the plant as well. Another example that was less obvious and was an interesting surprise to me was the adoption of seismic isolation technologies, which could help simplify the design of the structure sitting on the seismic isolators, so the reactor itself and all its internal parts, as well as helping the standardization of the design. Because a lot of what we do in current plants that is related to or that is customized for the specific site is related to earthquakes. If you eliminate that constraint or that concern with the use of seismic isolation, then you can standardize further. But as I said, not everything was related to construction. We looked also at innovations that might help reduce the operating cost. Of course, in absolute terms, these are smaller than capital costs and the cost of the plant, but still important. Using automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and technologies of that type, you may be able to also reduce the cost of producing electricity once the plant is built.
John Parsons: When we all started the study, there had been a lot of news articles about new reactors, research going on—some of it here at MIT and various other places—on new reactor designs. There was a certain buzz in the air about what the future of nuclear was about and what you might need to solve going forward. But I think one of the points that we came to realize in the course of doing this study was that while those are important advances which may bring new opportunities in the future, some of the real critical problems to solve—Jacopo mentioned cost earlier—are really with other parts of the reactor than those ones that everybody has been, as I say, buzzing about. The construction cost is enormous but that’s all this civil work that goes on around the reactor, building the containment structures and various other parts. There are lots of innovations in that area.
On safety features and operator intervention:
JB: The new designs, also called Generation IV systems, or small modular reactors, do bring to the table certain potentially attractive features. It ranges from some advances in the safety profile of nuclear power plants—they use radically different materials and safety systems that maybe do not require external energy sources, so they’re more tolerant to abnormal events or external events, as we call them, and they require a little bit less operator intervention. We think as nuclear is considered for growth, especially for countries that do not have experience with nuclear, these designs might help, because they might simplify operation and response to accidents and abnormal events. That’s one feature that these new designs clearly bring to the table.
On the importance of the construction process:
JP: I’d say one of the biggest contributions we make is giving some direction to the industry—as well as to government funders of research—on where to focus future advances. The point we made earlier about construction costs, that’s the big problem that the industry faces. If you don’t tackle that problem, you’re really not going to get very far. That problem is really about other elements than the nuclear reactor vessels and the exact way in which the nuclear fission happens and the heat is transported and things of that sort. Really directing people to focus on construction process is a big deal. It’s also true that a lot of people who deal in nuclear innovation are focused on the fuel cycle. The fuel cycle is both what fuel do you put into the plant and what happens to the spent fuel when it’s done, and trying to make new fuel cycles. In particular, recycling the waste. While there are attractive benefits of recycling the waste, at the current technology we have, it’s not going to reduce the cost. If the first problem is cost, then talking about recycling the fuel is not addressing the first problem. Like I said, there can be other benefits from handling the fuel differently that may be worth the while, but it’s not addressing that problem.
KD: On the flip side of looking at construction costs, what really surprised me were things that weren’t really big drivers. When we ran a sensitivity study on our results, we found that things such as severe weather or efficiency of power plants didn’t change the overall generation mix. The only thing that did change the generation mix were construction costs of nuclear and construction costs of renewables.
On community and government involvement:
JB: The main problem that we’ve had in the United States is that the process of finding a site—and this unfortunately has been repeated in other countries—has been politically mismanaged without the necessary consensus and engagement with local communities. But there are some examples that are a reason for hope. Internationally, for example, in Finland and Sweden, that process has taken place with a more consensus-based and better-managed approach. They have been able to find sites for their waste management repositories. While we haven’t worked specifically on the waste management issue in the study, we do recognize it’s an important problem that has to be addressed if nuclear is to grow, both domestically as well as internationally. But we don’t offer any solutions. We just say, look, there are robust technical solutions. The government has to act and make sure that the sites are selected with due process.
JP: We support a few technologies like wind and solar with tax credits or production credits of a sort, but we’re not giving that same credit to nuclear. Basically, if we rationalized how we’re dealing with this climate problem, and said, everything that contributes to producing low-carbon electricity should be paid the same and we should pay the price that we need to pay to get low-carbon electricity, that would be the first step that would benefit nuclear power plants. We have some existing nuclear power plants in the United States that are finding it difficult to make a profit. They’re competing against low-price natural gas where the natural gas plants pay no penalty for the carbon.
On the experience of the study:
KD: To look at the future generation mix that would adequately meet certain carbon targets, we used a model called GenX, which optimized how much installed capacity of different generation types—such as solar, wind, nuclear, natural gas, carbon capture, et cetera—were installed on the grid. Not only did it look at how much were installed on the grid, but how much each type was going to be generating.
JP: It’s a rather large team of people who made this study happen so we have to pull those people together and identify what everybody’s contributions are going to be. We also have to hash out different thoughts about the role of nuclear and what were the major opportunities going forward for new innovations and things of that sort. And then there are major pieces of research that came out of the two years of work. Students had their PhD dissertation work coming out of it, or master’s thesis work, and those major pieces of research are important, key elements of the report.
JB: One aspect I particularly enjoyed in the project was the diversity of backgrounds that everybody brought to the table. This was not just a technology assessment study. It was really techno-economic plus policy. I not only hope to have contributed to the study but also learned a lot from the colleagues who worked with me on the study.
Read the report:
The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World