MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXI No. 2
November / December 2008
The State of the Institute?
A Call for Articles for Special Edition
Faculty Newsletter
The Renovation of 10-250: A Case Study
Worrying About Others: Notes on the Unfolding Financial Crisis
Please Vote!
A Perspective on the Future Energy Supply of the United States: The Urgent Need for Increased Nuclear Power
Can We Fix American Education During the Current Economic Crisis?
Open Access Publishing: The Future of Scholarly Journal Publishing
MIT Takes a Lead Role in Washington
Excerpts from Bosston
Requests for Proposals for Teaching and Education Enhancement
from the 2008 Classroom Survey
Printable Version

A Perspective on the Future Energy Supply of the United States: The Urgent Need for Increased Nuclear Power

Ulrich Becker, Bruno Coppi, Eric Cosman, Peter Demos, Arthur Kerman,
Richard Milner

The Problem We Face

The reliable and affordable availability of energy is the lifeblood of human civilization in the twenty-first century. It is essential to the quality and security of everyday life of the citizens in the United States. For example, the sudden loss of electrical power invariably reduces living conditions of the most technologically advanced society to a primitive state. The protracted loss of electric power would lead to chaos in the United States, with resultant instability worldwide. Recently, it has become clear that the future energy security of the United States is at serious risk from two different sources.

Most of the energy used in buildings, industry, and transportation arises from the chemical burning of fossil fuels. The waste produced in the burning process includes greenhouse gases (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane) which for the last 200 years have accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere. The present concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is estimated as 385 ppm, which substantially exceeds the estimated values over the last 500,000 years. Basic scientific arguments tell us that the increased carbon dioxide levels should result in heating of the Earth’s surface. Measurements indicate that the average temperature at the Earth’s surface has significantly risen over the last 100 years. If humanity wishes to preserve the planet on which human civilization developed, significant changes in the way we produce energy are urgently required. This is a global security challenge where the U.S. must play a leadership role.

Secondly, the energy supply of the United States relies to a great degree on the reliable and affordable availability of oil. For example, transportation (road, rail, sea, air) depends almost completely on oil. The world’s supply of oil is limited and it is located in many regions of the world which are politically unstable and unfriendly to the United States. In addition to this, it is possible that the total world oil supply may have already peaked. In the last two decades, the U.S. has been involved in two wars in the Middle East where the world’s major source of oil is located.

Until the U.S. dependence on foreign oil is significantly reduced, there is every expectation that increasing amounts of precious U.S. blood and treasure will have to be expended in widening conflicts in the cause of energy security.

It is widely accepted that the U.S. must find a way to wean itself from its addiction to oil. In ground transportation, which is a major oil consumer, significant progress is being made with batteries and fuel cells to replace gasoline with electricity, which can be generated in alternative ways.

Strongly motivated by these two considerations, the development of new technologies to increase energy efficiency and to produce reliable and affordable energy with minimal greenhouse gas emission to the Earth’s atmosphere is a high priority in the U.S. and in many other countries. It is essential that these efforts be encouraged and enhanced. However, the probability of success and the timescale for realization of these technologies is highly uncertain. The economic stability and national security of the United States over the coming decades cannot be secured by assuming optimistically that these new technologies will succeed in time to avoid a major discontinuity in the supply of oil and gas from foreign and potentially hostile sources. Further, it is not acceptable, nor is it possible, that the U.S. continues to burn fossil fuels indefinitely at present levels, thereby putting in clear jeopardy the planet on which we have evolved.

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Nuclear Power is Carbon-free, Technologically Feasible, Scalable, and Economical

The United States needs immediately to develop on a large scale an energy source which does not produce greenhouse gases, which is already known to be technologically feasible, and which is economical in view of projected costs of energy in the future. That energy source is nuclear fission.

Nuclear fission power reactor technology was developed in the U.S. and has been utilized for electricity generation on a large scale across the globe for half a century. For example, France produces about 70% of its electricity using nuclear power. In the U.S. about 20% of the electricity used is produced using nuclear power. However, there are states where it is significantly larger, e.g., in Illinois about 50% of electricity is generated by nuclear power. The U.S. should establish the goal to produce half of its electricity by means of nuclear power as soon as feasible. This will have the effect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding the risk of an “energy gap” in supply, and providing valuable time for new energy technologies to be developed. This goal would fast track and increase the projected levels of nuclear power over the scenarios considered in several energy studies, including the 2003 MIT study, The Future of Nuclear Power.

A Change in U.S. Government Policy and Leadership is Needed

The expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. requires a major change in U.S. government policy and a change in the U.S. public’s perceptions. In the past 30 years there has been criticism of nuclear fission power that has raised the American public’s concern; however, this criticism must be viewed today in the context of national energy needs and the positive experience that has been gained from the use of nuclear power.

The criticism has related primarily to nuclear reactor safety, storage and environmental risks of nuclear waste, proliferation of nuclear materials that could be used in weapons, and the cost of nuclear power relative to coal, natural gas, and oil. In each of these cases, the problems are either solvable, have been exaggerated in view of decades-long experience, are insignificant compared to a national economic crisis or international hostilities caused by a gap in U.S. energy supply, or are insignificant compared to the dangers of greenhouse gas emissions.

The safety record for reactors has been excellent, and safety can be further assured by improved reactor design. There are many decades of experience of safe handling, storage, and monitoring of radioactive materials worldwide. In addition, there are now several possible strategies that would actually use the existing waste to produce energy, thereby increasing the long-term availability of nuclear energy.

The U.S. must be an example for major greenhouse gas-emitting countries possessing nuclear technology, e.g., China, India, and Russia, in committing to a considerable reduction in global emissions. The cost of nuclear power becomes less important as foreign fuel prices spiral upward, and if the carbon tax factor is included, nuclear power becomes very economically important. Further, the cost of nuclear power would be irrelevant if our economy were to collapse from a cutoff of oil supply, or worse, if we had to go to war to secure our energy supply.

A Call for Action

Today the advancement of nuclear power in the U.S. is crippled by governmental policy, regulation, and misconceptions. In the long term, it is reasonable to expect that the energy needs of the U.S. will be met from a number of different sources, only one of which will be nuclear fission. However, to ensure the energy security of the Nation in the medium term and to allow time for the development of new energy technologies which can drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. needs to initiate immediately a program to implement nuclear fission reactors on a large scale.

As with the construction of the national highway system, the space program, the Manhattan Project, and the subsequent support of science, especially nuclear science, in the U.S. beginning in the late 1940s, such an ambitious goal can be realized only if it is established as a high national priority, particularly taking into account the fact that dealing with the energy problem is considerably more complex and difficult than any of the aforementioned projects. An urgent call to action is needed by the leadership of this nation. This call to action by our leaders would resonate strongly with the citizens of the United States, especially with the recent 1price of oil at record levels. Successful realization will require streamlining of the permitting process to contain costs. It will require substantial resources from the federal government to implement the most technically advanced reactor designs, and will require the full participation by the best and brightest in private industry, government laboratories, and academic institutions across the nation. A substantial investment to support a new generation of nuclear scientists and engineers must be made to make this realization possible.

We have been meeting regularly with colleagues at MIT, Harvard, and BU to consider the fast ramp-up of nuclear power in the U.S. We believe that the new U.S. President must address energy policy as a high priority and that nuclear will be an important component of U.S. energy supply in the coming decades. We would like to see MIT play a significant role in shaping this policy.

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