A recently released study by MIT finds climate change to be a much tougher battle without the expansion of nuclear energy, but added that the beleaguered industry would likely need supportive government policies.
Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded what nuclear energy advocates and some environmentalists have long argued: Nuclear energy is an essential component in reducing the world’s carbon emissions.
Churning out a reliable supply of electricity while emitting zero greenhouse gases, nuclear plants are able to contribute to carbon reduction targets in ways solar, wind or natural gas facilities can’t. Without growth in the nuclear industry — the study finds — the price to reduce carbon pollution will be much much costlier.
“While a variety of low- or zero- carbon technologies can be employed in various combinations, our analysis shows the potential contribution nuclear can make as a dispatchable low-carbon technology. Without that contribution, the cost of achieving deep decarbonization targets increases significantly,” read a portion of the massive 246-page report, which was released Monday.
The findings bring to light an ongoing debate on how the U.S. should best approach the decarbonization of its generation infrasturcture.
Government subsidies have contributed to the proliferation of wind and solar, but these renewable energy sources produce electricity at intermittent rates — only when the sun is shining or when the wind is blowing — and do not generate energy at the level of their fossil fuel counterparts.
Natural gas has also expanded rapidly in recent years and emits much less carbon than coal, but environmentalists still view the industry as not clean enough.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, an advocacy group for the industry, responded to the new report.
“MIT’s study highlights nuclear energy as a vital contributor in helping meet environmental goals across the globe, and MIT researchers are also explicit in linking the loss of existing nuclear power in the United States with increased costs for electricity consumers and setbacks for clean air targets,” said John Kotek, VP of Policy Development and Public Affairs at NEI, in a statement obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The MIT study is a valuable contribution to a vital discussion of our energy present and future.”
However, the report also included grim news.
Researchers concluded that the nuclear industry — which has been plagued with high costs — would not experience growth unless government regulators implement policies for its benefit, calling the role of government “critical.” Such regulations would need to encompass not just renewable energy, but all low-carbon energy sources.
Hit with stiff competition from cheap natural gas and renewables, nuclear plants in the U.S. have not fared well in recent times. Out of the 66 facilities currently operating in the U.S., 24 nuclear plants are either scheduled to shut down or likely won’t make a profit through 2021, according to a report released in May.
With a total generating capacity of 32.5 gigawatts, these at-risk plants make up more than a quarter of the entire nuclear industry.
These closures are happening quickly. As recently as August, FirstEnergy, a major electric utility, announced its next steps in prematurely closing down three nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The Trump administration has mulled a bailout plan for coal and nuclear plants that are at risk of closing down. Under an emergency plan, the Energy Department would mandate utilities purchase electricity from a list of at-risk plants for two years, guaranteeing them profits. The White House has considered the preventing the closure of coal and nuclear plants — which provide a reliable supply of electricity — as a matter of national security.
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