Nuclear Energy and Decarbonization of the Energy Sector

Note: this post is part of a series highlighting PEC’s upcoming conference, Achieving Deep Carbon Reductions: Paths for Pennsylvania’s Energy Future, March 15-16 at the David L. Lawrence Convention center in downtown Pittsburgh. This piece was contributed by guest blogger Mike Ford of Carnegie Mellon University.

Read other pieces of the series and learn more about deep decarbonization on the PEC Blog. Register for the conference at


Mike Ford, Carnegie Mellon University

I am sure that it is no secret to readers of this blog that one of the greatest challenges facing the environment today is the continued emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) resulting from the use of fossil fuels as our primary source of energy.  To address this challenge, the research we are doing at Carnegie Mellon examines how future sustainable energy development may support and enable a deeply decarbonized energy sector.  As many have noted, when evaluating how to decarbonize our energy mix, multiple carbon free generating technologies should be considered.  Growth of renewables must continue to be emphasized; however, renewables are not well suited to meet all energy demands and if deeply deployed (beyond ~50% of the energy mix) may bring with them grid stability and energy security concerns.

Nuclear fission is currently our largest carbon free generating source and many believe it should be supported as a significant part of our future energy mix.  It has a high capacity factor (a typical plant operates for ~90% of the year), can be deployed immediately at scale, and would significantly enhance grid stability and reliability; something that, absent breakthroughs in storage or significant grid enhancements, will be needed with a larger proportion of intermittent renewable sources in the energy mix. Unfortunately, since the mid 1990’s, nuclear energy’s contribution to overall world generation has decreased by almost 7% while renewable generation of all forms has only increased by ~4.5%.   This trend is troubling and if it continues, will make what is already an extremely challenging goal of less than a 2oC increase in global warming, set at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21), impossible to achieve.

Keeping nuclear a viable part of the mix will require implementation of a comprehensive set of technical and policy solutions.

The reduction in nuclear contribution to clean energy has been driven by many factors.  New nuclear development has often been plagued by high construction cost and cost overrun, especially in the U.S. and Europe.  Existing plants are again under scrutiny in many developed countries due to safety concerns following the accident at Fukushima, Japan, and poor economic competitiveness with other forms of generation.  This has resulted in early decommissioning for a number of plants in the U.S. and Europe.  New nuclear technologies that may further enhance safety, reduce waste, limit proliferation risk, and improve economic competitiveness have languished, in part due to unfocused and underfunded R&D.   If nuclear power is to play a role in the decarbonization of the energy sector, these challenges must be confronted and addressed. New deployment and construction models will need to be considered while keeping fuel cycle, operational safety, and proliferation risk at the forefront of policy discussions.  Keeping nuclear a viable part of the mix will require implementation of a comprehensive set of technical and policy solutions.

Nuclear advocates see the first step as minimizing further reductions in the existing fleet.  Recent government actions in New York and Illinois to recognize the value of existing plants are representative of the kind of targeted action that will be needed.  Following this, coordinated public and private sector action will be required to ensure that by mid-century, new technologies that enable safe, robust nuclear development are mature and available for broad deployment.  Work is ongoing that examines many of these issues.  This includes energy and policy research at Carnegie Mellon.   There are also major efforts at the national labs and other key research universities.  On the commercial front, there are more than thirty companies and over $1B in new capital that is working to move ahead on advanced fission designs.  These efforts are supported by key investors like Bill Gates of TerraPower.

All this must be done with a continuing eye on safety, economics, proliferation risk, and the as yet unresolved challenge of long term waste management.

A number of us are examining the role that nuclear could play in decarbonizing the industrial energy sector.  We are also exploring new methods of construction and deployment that may enable nuclear to play a greater role worldwide.  In my own research I examine the concept of shipyard built floating nuclear plants that could help provide stable baseload power to developing nations that need more reliable clean energy.  All this must be done with a continuing eye on safety, economics, proliferation risk, and the as yet unresolved challenge of long term waste management.   I’ll discuss some of these concepts in March as I participate in the Pennsylvania Environmental Council Conference – “Achieving Deep Carbon Reductions: Paths for Pennsylvania’s Electricity Future.”

Some of the earliest efforts in commercial nuclear energy were based here in Pennsylvania and the state still leads the way in capacity, trailing only Illinois in total nuclear generation for 2016.  Keeping nuclear alive as a viable and safe contributor to clean energy will require a broad effort. Pennsylvania, with its broad base of public and private sector talent coupled with environmental awareness provided by organizations like PEC, is well suited to help lead the way.

Michael (Mike) Ford is the founder and Principal Analyst of Great Circle Strategies LLC, a consulting firm specializing in Energy, Environment, and Public Policy. He is currently completing a PhD in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, where he is conducting research in the area of Energy and Environment, focusing on advanced reactor technology development, unique power plant deployment models and proliferation risk. Mike is a former U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer with subspecialties in nuclear engineering, resource management, and operations analysis. Mike holds a Master of Science degree in Engineering (Engineering Management) from The Catholic University of America and is a past Fellow in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies Seminar XXI Program. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Joint Forces Staff College and Air Force Air Command and Staff College.