Posted by Mark Halper

Ernest Moniz MITEI JustinKnight

Could he encourage nuclear R&D? President Obama’s nominee for U.S. Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz,     is a pro-nuclear physicist from MIT.

Today calls for a review of the week, and not simply because it’s Friday and the weekend is upon us. Rather, the last seven days have provided several high level endorsements for nuclear power from regions of the world that have been giving it a hard time. Consider these examples:

Japan. One week ago, the Japan Daily Press reported that “Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged that nuclear plants that pass the new safety guidelines could restart within the year. This is to ensure maintenance of a stable energy supply.”

It was the latest, and perhaps the strongest indication yet, that Japan will return to nuclear power following the near complete shutdown after the Fukushima meltdowns of 2011 forced the evacuation of over 100,000 residents.

Abe won’t have carte blanche to flip the switches on. Each reactor must first pass new, tougher safety measures. Don’t expect anything close to a complete return to pre-Fukushima days, when nuclear provided about 30 percent of the country’s electricity.  And the anti-nuclear movement has by no means evaporated.  As the JDP noted in a separate article, anti-nuclear protestors are holding weekly rallies in Tokyo.

But the economic and environmental costs of shutting nuclear, as I’ve written several times recently, are mounting. Watch for a significant return by the summer.

Bill Gates. The Microsoft co-founder and billionaire yesterday told an international gathering of prominent energy executives in the oil hub of Houston of all places that, as Reuters paraphrased him, “safe and reliable reactors were the best option and dismissed wind and solar energy as less practical.” At the IHS CERAWeek conference, Gates said that nuclear trumps wind or solar because it can supply round-the-clock power. (CERA is the former Cambridge Energy Research Associates founded by Pulitzer Prize winning author and oil maven Daniel Yergin; IHS is the Englewood, Colo. research group that acquired it 2004).

There’s no big surprise here really. Gates is the chairman of TerraPower, the Bellevue, Wash., company that is developing a new type of nuclear reactor meant to replace conventional reactors. TerraPower’s “traveling wave reactor” is a “fast” reactor that breeds its own fuel.

But we haven’t heard publicly from the nuclear Gates for a while. His timing is encouraging, coming amid recent U.S. press reports suggesting doom and gloom for nuclear, and as the country gets ready to install a new Energy Secretary. Speaking of which..

Obama goes nuclear? U.S. President Obama on Monday nominated a pro-nuclear physicist, Ernest Moniz, as the next Energy Secretary. If approved by the U.S. Senate, Moniz would replace the outgoing Steven Chu. Moniz as head of the Department of Energy. Moniz currently heads the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative.

More MIT. A couple of MIT experts, including one from Moniz’ MITEI,  together wrote a compelling case for nuclear power published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on Monday. MITEI principal research scientist Sergey Paltsev, and MIT Sloan School of Management Henry Jacoby said that a nuclear phaseout by 2050 in the U.S. would increase carbon emissions and electricity prices, and would shrink gross domestic product.

The consequences would hold true to varying degrees depending on which regulatory path the U.S. takes in terms of restricting greenhouse gas emissions. I wrote a summary of the scenarios on my CBS SmartPlanet blog (the Jacoby and Patlsev analysis was part of a package of stories on U.S. nuclear, some of which presented an economic case that renewables trump nuclear).

One oversight by Jacoby and Paltsev: They made no mention of alternative nuclear technologies, such as the sort that Gates’ TerraPower is developing, or such as thorium fuel or molten salt reactors. These options could further support the economic and environmental case for nuclear, by providing reactor options that are safer, more efficient, and ultimately less expensive than conventional nuclear.

As Gates said at IHS CERAWeek, the U.S. DOE should increase energy research and development.

“We should put a lot more into innovation, ” he noted. “When we get a carbon tax we should put some of that into innovation.”

I agree Bill. And I know some molten salt researchers and some thorium enthusiasts who might like that idea too.

Photo by Justin Knight is a screen grab from the MITEI website.


  1. Canon Bryan says:

    I love Ernie’s hair do! It’s so hippy-geek.

  2. Marcelo Pacheco says:

    It seems pretty clear that the US DOE has no true interest in new nuclear tech. Their policies only make sense for established nuclear powerhouses looking to make better reactors using the same old PWR/BWR.
    While the NRC’s job isn’t to create any incentive for nuclear innovation, the DOE’s job should be to do just that.

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