Nuclear Fission

Meeting the world’s ever-increasing demand for energy without adding to the burden of atmospheric carbon will require dramatic changes in the way humans generate and use power. Today, fossil fuel–based power generation and transportation systems are major contributors to the all-time-high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). To address the potentially devastating impacts of climate change, future systems will need to produce very low or even zero carbon emissions—and scale up within a very short time horizon: less than 35 years. Nuclear fission is uniquely positioned to help meet this immense challenge because it has the highest energy content of any power source and its growth potential is not limited by resource availability. Nuclear power can also scale up quickly to fulfill huge demand with zero carbon emissions. As climate experts have stated publicly: “There is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.1

Fortunately, nuclear fission is already a leading source of zero-carbon energy, providing approximately 12 percent of power generation worldwide (2,600 TWh in 20142) and almost 20 percent of total power (800 TWh in 20143) in the United States. Nuclear fission is particularly valuable in the overall power system because it is a baseload resource—one that provides steady, reliable power generation—thus ensuring a secure supply to critical infrastructure. In developing regions where the rapid expansion of secure baseload is a priority, nuclear fission offers a cost-effective, carbon-free alternative to the expanded use of coal. In developed economies with less demand growth, greater utilization of nuclear power will enable fossil-based generation to be phased out. Thus, nuclear fission offers a highly attractive pathway to meet growing electricity demand without increasing associated carbon emissions. In addition, nuclear power offers an attractive route toward decarbonization of the transportation sector by providing the power and heat necessary to operate electric cars or produce synthetic fuels, including biofuels and hydrogen.

Unfortunately, progress toward realizing the enormous potential of nuclear power has been fitful. The substantial capital costs associated with contemporary reactor designs has meant that very few institutions beyond governments and government-backed corporations have been capable of developing new nuclear power capacity. In spite of the industry’s robust safety record, rare but serious accidents such as that which occurred in Fukushima, Japan, have exacerbated public concerns about the safety of nuclear plants. Furthermore, yet-to-be fully addressed questions regarding the nuclear fuel cycle, in particular the waste and proliferation issues, have engendered reticence about expanding the use of nuclear power. However, options are emerging for overcoming these barriers: innovative reactor designs are addressing cost and safety concerns while progress is being made toward developing more environmentally sustainable and secure fuel cycles.

Now, there is an urgent need for a concerted and coordinated effort to support broad-ranging innovation that can move solutions for nuclear power’s contemporary challenges through the research and development pipeline and into commercial deployment. The MIT Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems (CANES) will provide the platform necessary to reach this goal.

Image: Christine Daniloff, MIT