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In response to the renewed interest in, and opportunities for, nuclear energy worldwide, the MIT Energy Laboratoryand Department of Nuclear Engineering have established the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (CANES).
Some 20 MIT faculty and staff are directly involved in CANES, which will coordinate and expand MIT activities in examining new technology options for future nuclear energy plants and fuel facilities. In addition, it will examine the best approaches to managing and regulating such facilities.
Directed by Professor Mujid S. Kazimi, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) Professor of Nuclear Engineering, the center will also serve as a resource for examining emerging external ideas for improved or new energy systems. Additionally, the center will undertake educational activities, such as short courses, electronic offerings and topical publications for a variety of audiences, including nuclear engineering and energy professionals, national and international policy makers and interested members of the public.
Economic growth around the world has led to a steady need for new electric generation capacity. However, there are limitations and concerns related to the use of traditional fossil energy sources and renewable energy sources. Meanwhile, nucleaï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½r power plants, which provide nearly 20 percent of the world's electricity, have operated in recent years with increasing reliability and safety. These two factors have combined to stimulate a renewal of interest in nuclear power in many parts of the world.
Today, nuclear energy is one of the few options that can meet the growing demand for electrical power while maintaining air quality and avoiding significant emissions of greenhouse gases. Intensive efforts to explore innovative technology essentially ceased in the last two decades, after the existing light-water reactor designs captured a dominant share of the 440 reactors around the world. While evolutionary light-water reactor designs have been developed, only a few units have been ordered to date, all in the Far East where these plants could still be economically competitive.
"If nuclear systems technology is allowed to benefit from the revolutionary changes in materials, and from information technology and the lessons of operation and regulation of current reactors, it is clear that major improvements in the economics, safety and reliability of nuclear plants are possible," Professor Kazimi said.
Several MIT faculty members are currently engaged in research on a variety of advanced-reactor concepts that have the potential for revolutionizing the technology of nuclear-power systems. These include modular designs of smaller reactors that can be financed more economically. One of these designs is the helium-cooled pebble bed reactor that will offer superior safety features. The use of thorium as part of a high-burnup fuel to reduce the waste burden from light-water reactors is also being investigated.
CANES currently has four research programs: advanced reactor technology; nuclear fuel cycle economics, waste and environmental policy; nuclear systems enhanced performance; and the international program for spent-fuel management.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 18, 2000.