• by Richard Lester
  • 16

This image of the United States at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. The image was made possible by the satellite’s “day-night band” of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared and uses filtering techniques to observe dim signals such as city lights, gas flares, auroras, wildfires, and reflected moonlight. (NASA/flickr)


In order to sharply reduce carbon emissions, we need more than scientific and technological breakthroughs. We need to completely restructure our energy innovation system.

MIT Professor Richard Lester offers one way to make that happen — and explains why nuclear power remains a critical piece of the 21st century energy mix.

richard_lester edit

Richard Lester founded the Industrial Performance Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is Japan Steel Industry professor and head of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

Innovation offers us our best chance to solve the urgent and interrelated problems of climate change, worldwide insecurity over energy supplies, and rapidly growing energy demand. But achieving a timely transition to efficient, reliable, low-cost, low-carbon energy will require a radical overhaul of the energy innovation system.

Accelerating innovation means accelerating every stage of the innovation process. It isn’t enough just to focus on the early stages. There we rely on a combination of federal funding of fundamental research and private seed funding of new energy concepts and start-up companies. We need more of all of this.  But much of the force that additional investment might exert at the front end of the process will be dissipated unless effective strategies are also in place to address the intermediate and downstream stages, including the continued refinement of the innovation after it is already in large-scale commercial use.

It’s at the middle stages of 1) demonstrating the commercial viability of new technologies, and 2) reducing costs and risks, making other improvements, and building out complementary manufacturing and regulatory structures during initial take-up of the innovation in the marketplace that the U.S. falls short.

Private capital markets focus on short-term returns and won’t make the large-scale, long-term and often risky investments required to develop the low-cost, low-carbon energy sources of the future. So public action is needed, but this doesn’t mean putting Federal agencies in the driving seat.

What’s needed is a sizable source of steady, reliable, patient capital to make investments in the range of tens of millions to billions of dollars to spur waves of innovation that will reduce the costs and risks of low-carbon technologies (energy efficiency, nuclear, wind, solar, geothermal, carbon capture and storage) so that by 2050 they will have largely replaced fossil fuels, especially in the power sector.

Congress or, more likely, consortia of states should establish a network of Regional Innovation Investment Banks (RIIBs) whose purpose would be to co-finance, along with private capital, demonstration and early deployment projects for the new low-carbon energy infrastructure.

Funds would come from an innovation investment surcharge paid by electricity users.  A surcharge of two-tenths of a cent per kilowatt-hour — similar to the energy conservation charge already in place in many states — would raise about $8 billion annually. State trustee organizations, functioning somewhat like state pension fund trustees, would allocate these funds to the RIIBs on a competitive basis. The federal government’s only role would be to serve as a “gatekeeper,” certifying that proposed demonstration and early deployment projects meet the criterion of reducing our collective carbon footprint.

An important question concerns the role of nuclear power in our energy future. I believe that a major worldwide expansion of nuclear power is an essential component of a low-carbon energy future. Projections made by the  International Energy Agency indicate that nuclear power may need to meet about 25 percent of global electricity demand by 2050 if we are to avoid the worst risks of climate change. To reach that goal, we would need to build more than twice as many nuclear plants worldwide in the next 40 years as we did in the last 40 years.

The global nuclear industry faces major challenges in the wake of the Fukushima disaster two years ago. However, I believe we’re likely still at the early stages of development of nuclear science and technology, roughly analogous to where the field of electrical engineering stood in 1900 — before the development of the power grid, radio, television, telecommunications, and the Internet. No one today can foresee the range of safe, practical applications of nuclear technology that may be commonplace at the dawn of the 22nd century, except to say that the nuclear power plants of the year 2100 will have about as much resemblance to today’s reactors as a modern automobile has to a 1913 Model T Ford.


Tags: Climate change, Environment

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • DubiousRAY

    I am not convinced that nuclear energy is a necessity for our future. There are problems with transmission,but how much electricity could be generated by an enormous solar array built in the desert Southwest? Aside from the risks of another Fukashima–multiplied many times over by building even more nuclear plants in the coming years–what are we to do with the waste? There isn’t adequate storage today for the radioactive waste that is currently produced.
    I see the answer as consisting of the following:
    1. Increased use of solar/wind/tidal/geothermal.
    2. Improved efficiency in our use of electricity.
    3. Cleaner production of electricity via the use of fossil fuels.

    4. Decrease in our use of electricity.

    • jimhopf

      What do you mean by “inadequate storage”. Nuclear’s waste stream is literally millions of times smaller than those generated by other energy sources and industries. It has always been completely and safely contained, and has never hurt anyone or had any impact on public health (unlike fossil fuel’s toxins/wastes, which are dumped directly into the environment).
      We’ve known what to do with nuclear waste for some time now; it has always been a political, as opposed to technical problem. The very long term risks from nuclear waste are actually far smaller than those associated with many other waste streams, including those from fossil fueled power generation (e.g., coal ash).
      Any suggestion that fossil fuels be used instead of nuclear is indefensible. There is universal scientific consensus that nuclear’s public health risks and environmental impacts are far smaller than those of fossil fuels. Worldwide fossil fueled power generation causes hundreds of thousands of deaths annually (i.e., ~1000 deaths every single day), and is the leading cause of global warming. Fukushima is the first (only) significant release of pollution in non-Soviet nuclear power’s entire 40+ year history, and even it is not projected to have any measurable public health impact. Its final, overall public health impact is definitely less than that caused DAILY by worldwide fossil-fueled power generation. Nuclear also has a negligible impact on global warming.

    • Futo Buddy

      the new design reactors actually consume their own waste. #4 will never ever happen

    • X-Ray

      I would rather deal with a few hundred tons of segregated nuclear waste than billion of tons of combustion products dumped into the atmosphere I breathe. Further, nuclear is suitable for baseload (continuous) suppy. The so-called renewables (wind, solar, tidal) are not. The antinuclear drive is based on fear and a lack of understanding and ill-considered alternative tradeoffs.

    • UzUrBrain

      And what about all of the “natural” nuclear waste from the fissionable minerals in the earth? They have been around for longer than man and maybe even life on earth.

      Google “nature’s nuclear reactors” and be enlightened. Even Wikipedia has an article.

  • Mark Goldes

    The Bank is an excellent idea.

    Building nuclear plants fueled by radioactive materials would be a huge mistake.

    Black Swans, highly improbable innovations with enormous implications, will replace oil, coal, natural gas, and radioactive fuels.

    Fuels of the future may include ambient heat, Zero Point Energy, small amounts of water and tiny packets of powdered nickel. All inherently inexpensive, the entire world, has abundant supplies.

    Future electric cars and trucks will have unlimited range and require no externa
    recharge. They will be mobile power plants, selling electricity to the grid when
    suitably parked.

    A Zero Point Energy powered magnetic generator was demonstrated by Hans Coler in Germany, in 1926. Coler demonstrated a 6,000 watt generator in 1937. His lab was bombed late in WWII. He later moved to England. British Intelligence published a Report about Coler’s work in 1946.See:

    Self-sustaining magnetic generators, and water powered engines, have a history of deluded inventors and scams. However, to the surprise of almost everyone new science and technologies promise a few will soon become practical.

    Such inventions and Muon-Pion fusion will help all of us, supersede fossil fuels. Perhaps, just in time. See CHEAP GREEN and MOVING BEYOND OIL at

    Out-of-the-box inventions are almost always starved for capital. Angels unafraid of high risk, and having sufficient savvy to evaluate entrepreneurs, can make a huge difference in the speed with which breakthrough technologies enter the market.

  • Jack Amano

    In MIT’s 2003 assessment of nuclear power Prof Lester assured us that if nuclear received the policy support recommended by the report we would now be in the midst of a nuclear revival. In 2005 the industry got everything on their policy wish list and more – yet (pre-Fukushima) the industry was delivered the performance that has characterized its entire history – massive cost overruns and construction delays. In retrospect the reports on published by MIT’s Dept of Physics are clearly little more than conduits through which nuclear industry wish lists are given a patina scientific legitimacy. The claim is made that nuclear power is required to move away from carbon – this is simply false. In point of fact it delays the transition away from carbon by propping up the economic system favorable to large scale centralized thermal generation. We have known since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that renewable energy safely and cleanly offers the potential for more energy than we can possibly use. Since then we have confirmed that the technologies to make that a reality are here and now.

    Frankly, as a leading academic Prof. Lester needs to ponder the ethical implications of his claims regarding both the realistic potential of scaling up nuclear power and, most especially, the claims that nuclear power is a necessary part of a clean energy mix.

    • jimhopf

      I have serious problems with the “ethics” of those opposed to nuclear power. As Michael points out below, the impact of nuclear opposition has been the continued use of fossil fuels (including coal) to a much greater degree, over the last several decades. This has resulted in a much larger degree of global warming as well as (literally) millions of deaths. There is universal scientific consensus that nuclear’s public health risks and environmental impacts are much smaller than those of fossil fuels.

      Futhermore, in terms of ethics, nuclear opponents have always been notable in their degree of intellectual dishonesty, including their gross exaggerations of nuclear’s risks/impacts, their relative silence on the much greater risks/impacts of fossil fuels (the main alternative to nuclear), and (now) their insistence that renewables will be able to provide all (or even most) of our electricity in the foreseeable future, despite their intermittentcy.

      Also dishonest is the suggestion that renewables are cheaper than nuclear, or that they have ever beaten nuclear on a fair, open economic playing field. Renewables are being built almost entirely because of massive subsidies and outright mandates for their use (regardless of cost or practicality). They compete with nothing. The only thing nuclear has ever struggled to compete against is fossil fuels, and that’s only because, unlike nuclear, fossil fuels are allowed to just dump their wastes/toxins directly into the environment, for free. If fossil fuels were held to the same standards as nuclear, they would be more expensive.

      At a minimum, under a fair economic competition (where CO2 emissions are not allowed), renewables would only capture a fraction of the market (~20%-25%) above which intermittentcy would make them impractical or far more expensive (than nuclear). Nuclear would probably take most of the rest.

  • Michael Quinlan

    With the advantage of hindsight, we may one day view the grassroots anti-nuclear movement as one of the largest contributors to destructive planetary warming. Massive, consistent base power is extremely valuable and very difficult to replace. Inconsistent (wind, solar) power is not an equivalent replacement at scale. Inconsistent power made consistent through storage is not affordable at scale. Tidal and such can’t achieve meaningful scale. The self identities of many active and influential persons of good will are tied up in their lifelong anti-nuclear stance, It’s not an overstatement to say that if they were able to transition in sufficient numbers to a pro new-era safe-nuclear stance, it could significantly improve the risk profile of the planet and our species.

    • Pointpanic

      I doubt that,Michael. the nuclear industry has a history of duplicity and lack of accountability. And contrary to popular belief ,Nuclear power is greenhouse gas intensive.NO,not when the plane is up and running ,but the whole cycle of mining ,enriching, refinement and waste disposal, not to mention the construction of these plants.

      • Bill_Woods

        Even counting the whole cycle, nuclear is about the same as wind or solar.

      • UzUrBrain

        Read the real reports – Even MIT and U of Wisconsin studies shows that TOTAL lifecycle nuclear impact, including the co2 given off by the curing of concrete, is competitive with Wind in the lifecycle generation of CO2. You are being misinformed.

  • Futo Buddy

    it would be nice if we could build some new nuke plants and get rid of some of the very old ones

    • Bill_Woods

      Better still, build some new nukes and get rid of some coal plants.

  • X-Ray

    The 1913 model “T” had four wheels, a motor and could be steered. We would have done a lot of walking if we had put it aside and waited 100 years for a more modern version to come along.