The Future of Nuclear Energy


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.

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Francesca McCaffrey: From MIT, this is the Energy Initiative. I'm Francesca McCaffrey. On today's show, we look at a new MIT study on nuclear energy called The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World. Here today with us are three of the study authors from MIT: Jacopo Buongiorno and John Parsons, study co-chairs, and Karen Dawson, PhD candidate. Hi everyone and welcome to the show.

John Parsons: This is John Parsons. I’m a faculty member in the Finance Group at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

Jacopo Buongiorno: I’m Jacopo Buongiorno, I’m a professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT.

Karen Dawson: I’m Karen Dawson. I’m a PhD candidate at the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT.

FM: Before we get into the report, let's talk about nuclear generally. Why nuclear and why now?

JB: We think the world has a big problem to solve, which is climate change. The study is about accessing 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.

FM: What inspired all of you to write this report?

JB: The impetus for the report was provided by the realization that a lot has changed in the energy landscape of the past 15 years, in particular for nuclear. Some things have changed for good, some things have changed for worse for nuclear and other energy sources, and so we thought it was a good time to take a fresh look at the prospects for nuclear in the next few decades.

FM: With all of these different individuals coming together to do this study, how long did the process of writing the study take, and what did the research involve?

JP: The study basically took two years. We had to scope out the study at the beginning, figure out what were the main lines of work to be done. 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: I'll add one aspect I particularly enjoyed of the project, was the diversity of backgrounds that everybody brought to the table. This was not just a technology assessment study. It was really a 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.

JP: And there was a trajectory for figuring out the final points of view in the study. I think when we all started the study, there have 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 but they weren’t the ones… some of us knew about some of these innovations, but I think others of us really came to see how central those were.

FM: Can you give some examples of what those innovations are? Are they all construction-related, or are there different areas where you can make these improvements?

JB: They're mostly focused on reducing cost and time in the construction of the plant, but not exclusively. A couple of examples. Modular construction, that has become a little bit of a buzzword. We dug deeper than the buzz and found that, indeed, shifting work from construction sites—which tend to be fairly cumbersome, labor-intensive, and so on—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 sort of 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, smaller than capital costs and the cost of the plant, but still important. Using automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and technologies that of type, you may be able to also reduce the cost of producing electricity once the plant is built.

FM: Why is it so important to make sure that nuclear is a part of the energy mix? What kind of role does it need to play in our current energy field?

KD: 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. And this is in the report. 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 than that, times greater than what it would be if nuclear was an option.

FM: You mentioned in the study the importance of possibly shifting towards some newer and different reactor designs and different generations of nuclear reactors. Can you talk about what those new designs entail?

JB: The new designs, also called Generation IV systems, or small modular reactors, do bring to the table certain potential 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. A second opportunity for some of these designs is to expand the mission of nuclear. The traditional reactors operate at relatively low temperature, around 300° C. They're very well-designed for generating electricity. But if one needs, for example, heat at a high temperature for certain industrial processes—it could be the production of chemicals, it could be the generation of hydrogen for powering fuel cells and so on—then you need a different design. Some of these designs do operate at a temperature that is suitable for this. Then, lastly, to the extent that they can simplify the construction process, the delivery of the plant, they'd also potentially offer the opportunity to reduce cost. But the jury is very much still out on that, on the opportunity to reduce cost, just through changes in design of the Generation IV systems. In the report and in the study, we went through the analyses of where these opportunities are and found that the maturity of some of these technologies is such that you cannot definitively say now that the cost will be reduced. Unless those designs adopt the innovations in construction that we discussed a few minutes ago.

JP: I'd say one of the biggest contributions we make is, in a sense, giving some direction to the industry, as well as perhaps to government funders of research and such, 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 being 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 out of recycling the waste, it’s not… 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 and so on that may be worth the while, but it's not addressing that problem.

JB: Another concern that people have about nuclear energy is so-called waste management, which really is the management of the spent fuel once is comes out of the reactor. What we say in the report is that the political dimension always outweighs the technical dimension for this particular problem. In other words, there are robust technical solutions, whether they are interim storage in dry casks, for example, or geological disposable in excavated repositories or even deep boreholes. But traditionally, the challenge has been associated with siting the repositories, not really with engineering and the technology itself. 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 in 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.

FM: On the topic of government involvement, what would you say are some of the most important ways the government can help the nuclear sector to grow and diversify the energy mix?

JP: One of the important things the government does is structure the market in which nuclear power is sold. That market structure needs to be managed so people who invest in nuclear power can earn a return on the products that they're selling. That can be a problem right at the moment because, when I say earn a return on the products that they're selling, nuclear is offering a very valuable product because the electricity is produced without carbon. It's low-carbon electricity. But in the United States, for example, a few of the states are beginning to put a price on carbon so that power plants that emit carbon pay a penalty whereas the power plants that don't emit the carbon don't pay a penalty. But right now that's very weak. We don't give enough benefit to the plants that don't emit carbon. We need to pay more for that. 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.

JB: If I may add to that, I would say a powerful message that the study delivers is that, yes, industry has to pull its act together and start to deliver new nuclear power plants at lower cost and on time, but there is also a very important role that the government has to play. In particular I would emphasize what John said, the balance policy that puts all low-carbon energy technologies on the same plane.

FM: Was there anything that came up during the research that surprised you?

JP: Well, if I speak about the surprises, I'm going to betray the fact that I don't really know much about nuclear. It's a fun thing to participate in a research study with other people who know a field you don't know. We talk about these advanced nuclear technologies and I imagine they were, so to speak, invented yesterday and tomorrow. It's been really interesting to discover how many of these so-called Generation IV technologies were dreamt of right at the beginning of the nuclear age. The scientists who eventually developed the one we're using predominantly to do electricity generation now also thought of many of these others a long time ago. To see the experiments that were done decades past. It also helps me see how research and new scientific discoveries enable you to do something. Some of these designs, which were tried in the past, are nevertheless more ripe now because we’ve developed new materials that can be used with these now new designs but, once upon a time, old ideas. An old idea might not have been viable back five decades ago but much more viable now. I found it very interesting to learn a little bit about that sort of thing.

KD: On the flip side of looking at construction costs, what really surprised me was 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.

FM: When you say generation mix, do you mean how much power output the nuclear plant is putting out?

KD: Both that and also how much installed capacity of each generation type is on the grid. 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.

FM: I have a question for you about being a student involved in the study. How does this work relate to your studies at school? What do you think being involved in studies like this can do to benefit students in general?

KD: I'll answer the second part of that question first. The biggest gain that I got from the study was being exposed to all of the stakeholders in nuclear. Not only the members of the study, but the people we went out an interviewed. Going from the theory of the classroom to how everything I've learned so far can have real-world implications. And then to answer the question of how this work related to my studies, my dissertation is looking at similar topics of how we can decarbonize. I'm looking at not only electricity markets but also decarbonization in heat and transportation markets. I’m looking at the work that I've done for this study and all of the uncertainties in it. Not only looking at what's going to be the cheapest option, but what's going to have the highest likelihood of success.

FM: What do you want members of the general public who might not have a background in nuclear, but who read your study, to take away from it?

JB: One big takeaway is that nuclear really can contribute to the solution of this big problem of global warming. When we say a policy that is inclusive of all of the above and so on, the analogy that I like to make is with, in my case soccer, or someone may use ice hockey. The idea is, if you really, really want to score a goal, you need to have as many shots on goal as possible. Excluding one technology or the other technology—or any technology that has potential to score a goal—is obviously a mistake. Keeping nuclear in the mix, along with renewables and even fossil fuel as with carbon capture and sequestration, is the common sense and right thing to do.

JP: I would hope people who looked at it would see all of the dynamism in the research going on in a whole variety of areas and technological development. If you had a vague notion of nuclear from the past, or you thought that the trends that you had seen in the last 15 years must be the trends going forward, I'd hope you'd see that, there's a lot of opportunity to make things done differently, both technologically and also at an industrial and policy level.

FM: What's next for all of the authors of the study?

JB: Since the report has gone public, it was released at the beginning of September, we've been essentially on a road tour, if you wish, in different capitals in Europe, in the U.S., and in Asia, to have an open discussion about the findings of the study, and what the implications are. Including implications that might be specific to the country that we visit from time to time. It's no mystery that nuclear and the problem nuclear can solve, which is global warming is, by definition, a global problem, and therefore it's important not to focus exclusively on the U.S. but to really have a global dialogue about nuclear and the solutions to climate change.

KD: What's next for me is, I'm looking at adding an extra layer of dimensionality to the results that we have from looking at the future decarbonization scenarios, and looking at more than just cost, but also what's the chance of succeeding at meeting certain carbon targets.

FM: Thank you all for being here today.

JB: Thank you for having us.

JP: Pleasure to be with you.

KD: Thank you.