MIT report outlines changes needed to ensure nuclear energy’s value in reducing emissions

Published on September 28, 2018 by Liz Carey

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The steps needed to ensure a reduction in carbon emissions through safe nuclear energy production include changes in construction methods and management practices, a group of MIT researchers say.

In a recently released report, “The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World,” Jacopo Buongiorno, associate department head of MIT’s Nuclear Science and Engineering Department and co-chair of the study, said an analysis of the nuclear energy industry shows that not only is nuclear energy essential for the world’s energy future, but that new policies and business models, as well as new construction methods, could make nuclear energy more affordable and more environmentally beneficial in the future.

The study team presented its findings in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 5, and will present them in Tokyo on Oct. 9. According to the group, which consisted of MIT researchers, as well as colleagues from the Idaho National Laboratory and the University of Madison-Wisconsin, deep carbon emission reductions are necessary to slow or reverse the impacts of climate change, and nuclear energy is a key to achieving those goals.

The high cost of building nuclear plants, however, needs to be addressed, the report says. Other generation technologies have become cheaper in recent decades, while new nuclear plants have only become costlier.

The team says electricity in particular is a prime candidate for deep decarbonization. But while electricity consumption is on track to grow 45 percent by 2040, not incorporating nuclear into the low-carbon scenarios for electricity could increase electricity costs dramatically.

“Understanding the opportunities and challenges facing the nuclear energy industry requires a comprehensive analysis of technical, commercial and policy dimensions,” says Robert Armstong, director of the MIT Energy Initiative and Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering. “Over the past two years, this team has examined each issue, and the resulting report contains guidance policy makers and industry leaders may find valuable as the evaluate options for the future.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) was supportive of the study.

“MIT’s study highlights nuclear energy as a vital contributor in helping meet environmental goals across the globe, and MIT researchers are also explicit in linking the loss of existing nuclear power in the United States with increased costs for electricity consumers and setbacks for clean air targets,” NEI Vice President of Policy Development and Public Affairs John Kotek said.

“As our nation’s largest clean energy source, nuclear energy should continue to play a prominent role in any credible program to mitigate against carbon and air pollution,” he added.

Researchers say changes in construction are needed to ensure safer, more cost-effective nuclear reactors.

“The cost of nuclear electricity is mostly in the construction of the nuclear plant,” says Buongiorno. “Modular construction – i.e. shifting work from construction sites to factories – and advanced concrete solutions (innovations in concrete technology that reduce the installation time and cost of reinforced concrete structures) would likely reduce the cost of new nuclear.”

The report also recommends serial manufacturing as a way to reduce costs and increase safety.

“A shift towards serial manufacturing of standardized plants, including more aggressive use of fabrication in factories and shipyards, can be a viable cost-reduction strategy in countries where the productivity of the traditional construction sector is low,” says MIT visiting research scientist David Petti, study executive director and Laboratory Fellow at the Idaho National Laboratory. “Future projects should also incorporate reactor design with inherent and passive safety features.”

Included safety features could include core materials with high chemical and physical stability and engineered safety systems that require limited or no emergency AC power and minimal external intervention. Those types of features, the report says, can reduce the probability of severe accidents and mitigate offsite consequences in the event of an incident.

Buongiorno says that new construction management techniques could make nuclear more cost-efficient as well.

“Finishing the detailed design before starting construction of the plant is important in order to minimize re-design during construction which delays and increases cost,” he says. “Also, incorporating constructors and fabricators early into the design process ensures that the plant can be built and delivered as designed.”

But the industry needs government support and policy changes as well, the report says. Authors of the report recommended that policymakers should avoid premature closures of existing plants, which undermine efforts to reduce emissions and increase the cost of achieving emission reduction targets. The report recommended the implementation of zero-emission credits – such as those in place in New York, Illinois and New Jersey.

Report authors also recommended government support funding to share regulatory costs, research and development costs, production credits to reward successful new designs and assistance in helping to achieve specific technical milestones.