Nuclear power began 74 years ago on the University of Chicago campus with the well-known Chicago Pile 1 reactor and the Manhattan Project. Thirty years later, the 1970s were characterized by the rapid growth of nuclear reactors, with 14 per year being built on average globally. Today, as confronting climate change has become a top priority for many, nuclear technology is being closely examined on college campuses and laboratories across the United States and the world.
At EPIC’s first seminar of the quarter on November 18th, the University of Chicago’s renowned nuclear expert and theoretical physicist Robert Rosner discussed the role nuclear could play in reducing emissions. He began by asking: Would it even be possible to build new nuclear reactors at a pace that could make a difference in de-carbonizing the electricity sector by 2050?
Right now, coal makes up 40 percent of the world’s generating capacity. Nuclear makes up just 5 percent (380 gigawatts). The world would need about 1,330 gigawatts of additional nuclear power to replace coal, plus 330 gigawatts to replace aging nuclear plants set to expire. But we’re currently building reactors – world-wide – at a pace much less than the 20 gigawatts a year necessary to carry out this replacement by 2100.
If you want to get rid of the coal by 2050, you’d have to double the build rate to 40 gigawatts per year,” said Rosner, who is a professor in Astronomy and Astrophysics, Physics, and the Harris School of Public Policy.
There are multiple challenges to ramping up nuclear. First, they are costly. On average, it takes $6 to $7 billion to build a plant, but the actual cost could be much higher, depending on the experience level of the builder.
Then, there is the concern of nuclear waste. “In the United States, we’ve been at it for 60-plus years and still don’t have a plan that’s agreed upon and funded for nuclear waste,” said Rosner, who once led the Argonne National Laboratory.
The public’s perception of nuclear safety is also a concern. Even though in the 1950s Americans thought that nuclear power would “save us all” and be the “answer to all of our energy problems,” Rosner said, the technology came out of a weapons program, and that tie-in remains an obstacle for much of the public. Additionally, disasters like Chernobyl and more recently Fukushima can paint a negative impression of nuclear power in people’s minds.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, Rosner returned to the question he started with. In reference to doubling the build rate for nuclear, he said, “whether that will be done is an open question – it is technically feasible, but politically problematic.”
Nevertheless, Rosner remains an optimist. Though running on nuclear power will not be easy, he argued that it could be done. But that statement applies to almost everything that we do in battling climate change.
“I could have told the same kind of story for wind, for solar, for any kind of technology that you think is going to replace fossil fuel plants,” he said. “We are going to end up with a mix of technology, but need to go in there with intention. And right now, quite frankly, the intention is not yet there.”