MIT Energy Initiative

Update of the 2003 Future of Nuclear Report

Published: May 2009


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In 2003, a group of MIT faculty issued a study on The Future of Nuclear Power. The study was motivated by growing concern about global warming and the urgency of developing and deploying electricity generating technologies that do not emit CO2 or other greenhouse gases (GHG). The study addressed the steps needed in the near term in order to enable nuclear power to be a viable marketplace option at a time and at a scale that could materially mitigate climate change risks. In this context, the study explicitly assessed the challenges of a scenario in which nuclear power capacity expands from approximately 100 GWe in the United States in 2000 to 300 GWe at mid-century (from 340 to 1000 GWe globally), thereby enabling an increase in nuclear powers approximately 20% share of U.S. electricity generation to about 30% (from 16% to 20% globally).

The important challenges examined were (1) cost, (2) safety, (3) waste management, and (4) proliferation risk. In addition, the report examined technology opportunities and needs, and offered recommendations for research, development, and demonstration.

The 2003 MIT study on The Future of Nuclear Power, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, has had a significant impact on the public debate both in the United States and abroad and the study has influenced both legislation by the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Department of Energys (DOE) nuclear energy R&D program.

This report presents an update on the 2003 study. Almost six years have passed since the report was issued, a new administration in Washington is formulating its energy policy, and, most importantly, concern about the energy future remains high. We review what has changed from 2003 to today with respect to the challenges facing nuclear power mentioned above. A second purpose of this Update is to provide context for a new MIT study, currently underway, on The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, which will examine the pros and cons of alternative fuel cycle strategies, the readiness of the technologies needed for them, and the implications for near-term policies.

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