Keeping the Nuclear Option Open

More power. An expert panel recommends nuclear plants to combat climate change.

The U.S. government needs to rethink its nuclear energy research programs and policies if it wants to be able to use nuclear power to curb global warming. That's the message of a study released today by scholars at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Nuclear power plants currently produce 17% of the world's and 20% of the U.S. electricity supply. But in the wake of the 1979 Three Mile Island and 1986 Chornobyl accidents, the U.S. backed away from building new plants. The threat of global climate change, however, has planners taking a fresh look at nuclear power, because it emits almost no carbon dioxide, a leading warming gas. In contrast, 90% of U.S. carbon emissions come from coal-fired power plants that generate about half of the nation's electricity.

In the new report, an interdisciplinary team of seven MIT researchers, led by former Clinton Administration officials John Deutch and Ernest Moniz, examined a scenario in which the global number of 1000-megawatt nuclear reactors grows from the current 366 to up to 1500 by the middle of the century. They conclude that while the start-up costs would be substantial, the plants could cut carbon emissions by up to 1800 million tons annually--one-third of current emissions.

After examining a range of fuel and technology options, the panel concluded that reactors that simply "burn" uranium fuel and then send it to a disposal site would likely be cheapest, safest, and least likely to create materials that could be used to build nuclear weapons. To fine-tune such designs, however, the team noted that the U.S. would have to retool and strengthen its current nuclear energy research programs, which lean toward more complicated technologies. It also recommends that the government help companies find sites, license plants, and modestly subsidize those that use pioneering technologies. The team also says that solving problems related to waste disposal, cost, safety, and nonproliferation will be essential to enable future growth of nuclear power.

Some of the report's ideas may be reflected in a massive energy bill due to be debated this week in the U.S. Senate. But any proposal to give government aid to the nuclear industry "is bound to be controversial and attract opponents--it's literally a radioactive issue," says one congressional aide. Deutch, however, says his team is taking the long view in urging the government "to keep nuclear power on the table as a possible option for producing carbon-free power."

Related site
MIT's Future of Nuclear Power Report

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