NSE - Nuclear Science & Engineering at MIT


An evolutionary shift from the local (nano) scale to the global

Male faculty member seated in a chair in a hallway, MIT

For the bulk of his years as a nuclear engineer, Jacopo Buongiorno has had a career filled with success, though it might also be called conventional in certain respects. Buongiorno, the TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE), earned his PhD from MIT in 2000 and joined the faculty four years later. “In the beginning, I was very much focused on technical research issues, which is typically your first goal as an assistant professor hoping to get tenure. At that stage, you need to contribute to your field at a technical level, and I was no exception.”

He published papers on nanofluid technologies that might enhance the safety of nuclear power systems. He also developed new imaging and diagnostic techniques for exploring the physics of boiling and heat transfer, among other areas of research. For these efforts, he received the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Mark Mills Award in 2001, the ASME Heat Transfer Best Paper Award in 2008, and the ANS Landis Young Member Engineering Achievement Award in 2011. Although his research had gone well and earned accolades within the community, Buongiorno says, “in a way my work could have been considered rather narrow.”

Things changed dramatically during the 2015–2016 academic year. His friend and mentor in the NSE department, Mujid Kazimi, died on June 30, 2015, and Buongiorno soon took over as head of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (CANES), which Kazimi had directed since its founding in 2000. “CANES is the interface between MIT and the nuclear energy community,” Buongiorno explains. That includes companies within the nuclear industry that might want to sponsor research at MIT, the U.S. Department of Energy, and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “This is the gateway for the flux of information into and out of MIT when it comes to nuclear energy research,” he adds. “Consequently, I was no longer focused on the small community of nerds like me. I started to interact more with the government, corporations, NGOs, and the media. This was a turning point that really changed the course of my career.”

Appraising our nuclear future

In 2016, Buongiorno launched a study — involving about a dozen MIT professors, MIT students, and external consultants from the national labs and other schools — that culminated in the release of a comprehensive report titled “The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World.” At the time he initiated this project, Buongiorno felt that the nuclear industry was facing an “existential crisis,” and that was no exaggeration. News sources were filled with stories about various nuclear plants that were slated for shutdown, Westinghouse had filed for bankruptcy, and countries like Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland were announcing phaseouts of their commercial nuclear power programs. Meanwhile, pressure was mounting to develop carbon-free energy sources in the hopes of staving off global warming. The “Future” study, accordingly, took a hard look at the potential of nuclear technology for mitigating climate change.

Unlike the academic papers Buongiorno had previously written, this project involved a mix of technology assessment, economic analysis, policy review, and an examination of the nuclear regulatory system. After the report was released in September 2018, its findings and recommendations were presented in Washington, London, Paris, Brussels, Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing. “My focus ever since has been to determine the role nuclear can play in providing the world with clean and affordable energy,” Buongiorno says.

In the middle of the pandemic, during the summer of 2020, he was at home with that rarest of commodities — some spare time on his hands. He thought about the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, the last remaining nuclear plant in California, which was due to be shut down in 2024–2025. Meanwhile, he’d come across an article about land subsidence in central California owing to all the water pumped out of aquifers to support farming in the region. It occurred to him that saving the plant and using part of its power output to desalinate seawater might help alleviate the state’s water crisis, in addition to providing much needed carbon-free electricity. A 2021 report — that Buongiorno wrote with John Lienhard and John Parsons of MIT, Sally Benson of Stanford, and others—quantified the benefits of delaying the closure of Diablo Canyon.

Extending the plant’s lifetime to 2045, the authors maintained, could save ratepayers up to $21 billion, primarily by avoiding the deployment of replacement capacity just for the electric grid. Additional economic benefits could come, the study showed, from using the power plant to produce not only electricity but also desalinated water and clean hydrogen fuel as well. “We could do all this—produce enough electricity to send to the grid, desalinate seawater, and generate hydrogen — all at the same time and at the same place,” Buongiorno says.

Normally when a report comes out, he adds, “a few journalists might write about it. You get a pat on the back, the report goes onto a bookshelf, and that’s the end of it.” This time was different. Buongiorno and his colleagues hired a PR firm to help get the word out and connect with key interested parties. They briefed state officials and legislators, and met with labor unions, local tribes, and members of NGOs. “We spent three months talking about our study to every relevant stakeholder,” he says. “Then a miracle happened: This idea caught fire.” Governor Gavin Newsom, who had previously called for the plant’s shutdown, said he would now support extending the plant’s license to strengthen California’s energy system. State lawmakers voted on September 1, 2022, by a 67–3 margin, to keep the plant open until 2030. One day later, the Governor signed the bill into law. Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility company that owned the plant, then submitted the operating license renewal application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“This was by far the most impactful study I’ve ever been involved with,” Buongiorno comments. “It’s gratifying to think we did something good for California, the environment, the local economy, and for nuclear energy.”

Sharing info, spreading the message

About two years ago, Buongiorno helped establish the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Rapid Response Taskforce, which consisted of a group of experts who are available on short notice to brief the media and provide reliable information about nuclear science and technology whenever circumstances warrant it. The Taskforce has taken on special importance since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, with special concern given to Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — the largest nuclear power station in Europe and the site of intense artillery shelling that has jeopardized the facility’s safe operation. “We’ve been very busy answering questions from the media,” Buongiorno says, “making sure there is technically accurate information out there.” In the process, he and his colleagues have built a relationship of trust with reporters. The effort has been so successful that Buongiorno received an ANS Presidential Citation “for his outstanding support of crisis communications” at the Society’s annual meeting in June 2022.

Meanwhile, Buongiorno has ventured into another mode of communication, participating in a new podcast called “Gridlocked,” which aims to explore “why the 21st century is broken and how to fix it.”  The first season, which will come out in weekly episodes from February through April 2023, is all about energy, and Buongiorno will shape the discussion of nuclear energy’s future. “We’ve not yet come together to decarbonize, which means a way has to be found to overcome the stalemate we find ourselves in,” he says. “The questions are not just about climate change but also about economic inequality, the lack of energy security, and how energy can provide new opportunities in both developed and developing countries.”

Although he has been speaking out on global issues in recent years, Buongiorno doesn’t think all scientists are obligated to do the same. “Scientists should not be our decision makers and policy makers,” he says. “We have elected officials for that. But the decisions they make should be informed by sound science. So we have a duty to inform that process, and I’m happy to do it in the area of nuclear energy.”

Looking back, he recognizes that his perspective has changed a lot since 1990, when he began studying nuclear engineering as an undergraduate at the Polytechnic University of Milan. “At first, my interest was fairly superficial; I chose the field simply because it seemed challenging, exotic, and out of the mainstream,” Buongiorno says. “But as I learned more and more about the subject, I actually started to like it very much. And after 32 years in this business, I’ve never had any regrets. I think I picked the right discipline.”

Written by Steve Nadis. Photo by Gretchen Ertl.

February 2023