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World needs more nuclear to cost-effectively halt climate change, says MIT study

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Essential Energy Insights - September 17, 2020

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World needs more nuclear to cost-effectively halt climate change, says MIT study

A nuclear energy revival is needed to stabilize the world's warming climate at the lowest-cost possible but the future might be in jeopardy if nuclear technologies fail to cut costs and receive government support, concluded a new study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The MIT Energy Initiative's newly released "The Future of Nuclear Energy in a Carbon-Constrained World" study analyzes what is needed to accelerate the growth of nuclear energy capacity around the world, which currently contributes to just 11% of worldwide electricity and 5% of global primary energy production. Researchers and faculty at the Idaho National Laboratory, University of Madison-Wisconsin, Harvard University and elsewhere also contributed to the study.

"Realizing nuclear energy's potential is essential to achieving a deeply decarbonized energy future," Jacopo Buongiorno, the study's co-chair and an MIT nuclear science professor, said in a press release. Focusing on just deploying renewables, energy efficiency and conservation measures will not cut it, the study said.

As agreed to in the Paris Agreement on climate change, the world must drastically cut emissions to limit greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent in order to prevent global average temperatures from rising beyond a 2-degree Celsius increase by 2050.

For instance, in order for the United States to reach its 2050 climate stabilization goal, the study said the country would need to cut CO2 emissions from the electric sector by more than 97% — or from 500 grams carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour, or gCO2eq/kWh, in 2010 to less than 15 gCO2eq/kWh in 2050. A separate study by MIT researchers estimates that emissions around the world need to be reduced to almost 1 gCO2eq/kWh to keep within a 2-degree rise.

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The MIT study found that nuclear, under various "optimal capacity mixes," reduces the costs of reining in emissions and that cost-cutting nuclear technologies could cut costs even further.

"We find that higher system costs are always associated with greater amounts of installed renewable capacity (both wind and solar) combined with battery storage," explained the study. As a result of renewables’ intermittency, the study said system costs increase as large amounts of installed renewable and battery storage capacity are needed to ensure that electricity demand is always met.

For instance, to limit emissions at 10 gCO2eq/kWh, New England’s generation mix in 2050 would amount to roughly $125/MWh without nuclear, with a total installed capacity of 122 GW, while including nuclear would decrease those costs by $17.93/MWh, or 16.3%. Under such a scenario nuclear would constitute about 45% of New England's 43 GW total installed capacity with a nominal oversight capital cost of $5,500/kWe in 2050.

Under a third scenario that foresees low-cost nuclear constituting about 55% of New England's 40-GW optimal portfolio mix, system costs would decrease further by $31.64/MWh, or 32.8%, if nuclear has an improved overnight capital cost of $4,100/kWe, or about 25% cheaper than currently projected for 2050.

But the growing construction cost of new nuclear power plants is undermining these possibilities, said the MIT study. Seeking to reverse this trend by analyzing recent light water reactor projects under construction, the study recommended a shift away from capital-intensive "field construction" to "serial manufacturing of standardized plants" in factories and shipyards. The study also backed the incorporation of inherent safety features into reactor designs, such as meltdown-proof passive cooling in molten salt reactor designs. These safety features will also ease their licensing requirements and accelerate deployment, the study said.

Government support is also especially needed to craft favorable regulation for nuclear, level the playing field for all low-carbon energy technologies, including nuclear, and to spur private investment in advanced nuclear technologies, the study said.

The study outlined other various ways for governments to support nuclear, including paying credits to uneconomic nuclear power plants for avoided emissions in order to prevent premature reactor closures. The study also recommended government funding go towards the development and demonstration of new nuclear technologies to help ease project costs and risks.

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The publication of MIT's recommendations coincided with the annual release of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report by nuclear consultant Mycle Schneider. The WNISR's latest edition attributed the 1% increase of worldwide nuclear generation in 2017 mostly to 38 TWh of new nuclear capacity in China. Otherwise, the study showed that nuclear reactors are decommissioning at a far faster rate than they are being built around the world, as the mean age of the world's fleet of reactors reaches 30 years old.

"Unless the nuclear industry, in the next few years, is able to develop commercially available, smaller, factory-assembled, modular reactors, at lower cost … — the prospects of which seem remote — it is hard to see how nuclear has a place in our energy transition 4.0 or the 4th industrial revolution," said Anton Eberhard, a Cape Town University professor in energy economics, in the WNISR report's foreword.