Skip to main content

2009 Update to MIT's 2003 Future of Nuclear Power Study

MIT-Future-of-Nuclear-PowerBack in 2003, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study on nuclear power because they believed "this technology, despite the challenges it faces, is an important option for the United States and the world to meet future energy needs without emitting carbon dioxide (CO2) and other atmospheric pollutants." The 2003 study identified "the issues facing nuclear power and what might be done to overcome them."

Today, MIT released its Update to the 2003 study (pdf), and while some great progress has been made over the past six years, more needs to be done:
After five years, no new plants are under construction in the United States and insufficient progress has been made on waste management. The current assistance program put into place by the 2005 EPACT has not yet been effective and needs to be improved. The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.
Yikes. All is not bad though. Here are some good things that have happened over the past six years that the Update mentioned (p. 5):
The performance of the 104 U.S. nuclear plants since 2003 has been excellent.

The NRC has granted 51 license extensions to date with 19 such renewals granted between January 2003 and February 2008. Furthermore, modest power uprates have been granted in that period, adding about 1.5 GWe to the licensed capacity.

Seventeen applications for combined construction and operating licenses for 26 reactors have been submitted to the NRC.

Extension of the public attitudes research carried out in 2003 reinforces a trend towards greater public acceptance of nuclear power.
What's MIT's latest assessment on the costs of new nuclear plants? Here's page 6:
While the U.S. nuclear industry has continued to demonstrate improved operating performance, there remains significant uncertainty about the capital costs, and the cost of its financing, which are the main components of the cost of electricity from new nuclear plants.
No surprise there. Uncertainty will continue to remain until we actually complete new plants. Here's MIT's updated table on costs comparing nuclear, coal and gas. (LCOE = levelized cost of electricity)
The results of the costs seem reasonable with the following caveats:
The 2003 report found that “In deregulated markets, nuclear power is not now cost competitive with coal and natural gas. However, plausible reductions by industry in capital cost, operation and maintenance costs and construction time could reduce the gap. Carbon emission credits, if enacted by government, can give nuclear power a cost advantage.” The situation remains the same today.
Just to make sure we're clear here, the MIT study is saying nuclear power is not competitive with coal and gas plants that freely emit greenhouse gases. Once coal and gas plants actually have to account for their generous unwanted byproducts, nuclear power becomes competitive. I think most everyone would agree that the day of freely emitting GHGs is coming to an end. Somehow, though, I have a feeling that our nuclear opponents are going to spin this Updated study to claim that nuclear power is uneconomical, even though that claim will be based on one scenario that is becoming more and more unrealistic for coal and gas plants. We'll see...

Also worth noting is that the MIT team conducted some great research on new nuclear plant costs. In a supplemental paper to the 2009 update, MIT presented the costs of five units built between 2004-2006 in Japan and Korea (page 45 of the pdf). The two ABWRs mentioned came in under $3,000/kW. MIT found that "this more recent range [in costs] is lower than the range for the earlier Japanese and Korean builds [built between 1994-2002], perhaps reflecting continuing improvements in construction or other design factors." Exquisite. Hopefully the US can capture those lessons learned.

After you read this Update, be on the lookout for "a new MIT study, currently underway, on The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle, which will examine the pros and cons of alternative fuel cycle strategies, the readiness of the technologies needed for them, and the implications for near-term policies." That study should generate some interesting discussions...


Jason Ribeiro said…
I find the cost comparison of nuclear to gas and coal to be a bit disingenuous. We have two categories of electricity production - machines that DO emit air pollutants during generation and those that DO NOT. If one of the goals of the study is examine the "option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation."-- then why are coal and gas being considered AT ALL for cost comparison? If "climate risk mitigation" is a goal we all share and take seriously, then polluting sources of electricity ought not to be considered, period.

It would be fair to consider a cost comparison to wind, solar, solar thermal, geothermal and hydro. There are calculable and incalculable costs. The cost/risks of building and operating a nuclear plant are calculable, climate change and its potential to deliver dire catastrophic events is incalculable. If time is of the essence to mitigate the risk of some impending doom, does it not seem logical to only compare valid options to mitigate that risk? If not, then the MIT scientists don't really take the risks of climate change very seriously.

If a mile wide asteroid were headed straight for earth can anyone imagine scientists debating which solution to save planet earth would be the cheapest? Maybe these MIT scientists would.

Carbon emissions carry a cost to the environment whether they are given a price tag per ton or not. Paying for the benefit of non-polluting sources of energy should be considered an investment, not a cost. Furthermore, this study is using the conventional LWR as the base of comparison. It should always be considered that fission is the most versatile energy process capable of a wide variety of reactor designs with different cost/benefit profiles.
d. kosloff said…

Why would the folk at MIT be interested in being fair, reducing human suffering or saving lives?
Anonymous said…
Why do the Japanese and Koreans build 1 GW plants for $3B and we continue to see quotes for US plants of $9B or more in the press? Inflation??
Ioannes said…
Anonymous, no, the reason is that we have regulators interested in perpetuating their jobs, not regulators interested in the safe expansion of nuclear energy. That's why Obama appointed anti-nuclear Jackzo. It's only going to get worse.
crf said…
Jason, the study is not being unfair. It does have a column where they add a cost of 25 dollars per ton of carbon dioxide emitted. But I think you've hit upon how anti-nuclear, or anti-climate-science types will misrepresent such a study. That's not the study's problem or fault!

The cost one wishes to attach to greenhouse gas emissions can be added to this cost comparison analysis, I imagine without too much difficulty (HA!). What is shameful is that, up until now (assuming passage of some sort of climate bill which attaches some real money costs to CO2), there hasn't been any legal financial accounting of the costs of even one gram of US carbon dioxide emissions: all the costs have been pushed to the future, to be determined later.

After adding in the estimated costs of Waxman-Markey, the analysis would be even more useful. Those short term costs which Waxman-Markey would impose still don't capture all the real costs: but, for example, the Nicholas Stern report does try to put a price on the long and short term problems of carbon emissions.
Jason Ribeiro said…
@crf, while there are some things in the MIT report that I agree are reasonable assessments and recommendations, I still have a lot of bones to pick with it.

The general tone of the original report is one of extraordinary caution and skepticism coupled with a good dose of play-nice political correctness as shown with points such as:

At least for the next few decades, there are only a few realistic options for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation:

-increase efficiency in electricity generation and use;
-expand use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal;
-capture carbon dioxide emissions at fossil-fueled (especially coal)
-generating plants and permanently sequester the carbon.
-increase use of nuclear power.


A few of those points are NOT realistic. Efficiency is good, but it doesn't generate clean electricity and it works to create a Jevon's effect. Renewables are unreliable, inefficient and barely keep pace with line loss and new growth. CCS is is an unproven and would be more expensive and logistically challenging by orders of magnitude compared to nuclear.

Most of the top carbon emitter nations already have nuclear power plants. I'm a strong believer in strong progress over perfection. Replacing gaseous emitting electricity generation with clean nuclear among the top emitters is an achievable goal. The MIT report looks at the idea of "global" expansion of nuclear (perfection?), something I think is not feasible in the near term, or at least until small scale nuclear plants with appropriate safe guards and service programs & intervals are perfected. Moreover, I see nuclear as a way to stop the squandering of our fossil resources so their availability may be prolonged for future generations, thereby actually adding value to those resources.
Samuel said…
One cost factor that needs to be added if you compare wind, solar, and solar thermal with other power sources is unavailability. Since the forgoing alternative energy sources are not available 24/7, some form of backup power is necessarily on standby 24/7. Power reliability standards require that power providers MUST have connected to the power grid spinning or non-spinning turbines (spinning or non-spinning reserve) that can replace your worst contingency generation loss within 10 minutes. The more we rely on alternative energy, the greater the contingeny backup will be necessary. Thus, the cost of supplying power with alternative energy will require we keep old style backup power generation around until such time we are able to store electrical energy for future use.

Popular posts from this blog

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.


The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.

What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…

Why Nuclear Plant Closures Are a Crisis for Small Town USA

Nuclear plants occupy an unusual spot in the towns where they operate: integral but so much in the background that they may seem almost invisible. But when they close, it can be like the earth shifting underfoot., the Gannett newspaper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley in New York, took a look around at the experience of towns where reactors have closed, because the Indian Point reactors in Buchanan are scheduled to be shut down under an agreement with Gov. Mario Cuomo.

From sea to shining sea, it was dismal. It wasn’t just the plant employees who were hurt. The losses of hundreds of jobs, tens of millions of dollars in payrolls and millions in property taxes depressed whole towns and surrounding areas. For example:

Vernon, Vermont, home to Vermont Yankee for more than 40 years, had to cut its municipal budget in half. The town closed its police department and let the county take over; the youth sports teams lost their volunteer coaches, and Vernon Elementary School lost th…