Skip to Content

Green Nuclear

Why nuclear power should be part of the renewable-energy portfolio.
February 24, 2009

The Obama administration took office amid high hopes that it would come up with a strategy for clean, renewable energy that can work to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and reduce the pollutants associated with fossil fuels. What is puzzling, however, is the notable exclusion of nuclear energy from its portfolio of clean energy sources, which include hydroelectric, wind, and solar power. More than 73 percent of non-carbon-dioxide-emitting energy in the United States is nuclear energy. This power source supplies the country with about 20 percent of its electricity needs, while wind and solar power together supply less than 1 percent.

There is no rational explanation for the exclusion. The ability of the 104 operating U.S. nuclear plants to provide safe, clean energy is no longer in dispute, given their remarkable record since the Three Mile Island accident 30 years ago. Nor do most people question whether nuclear energy produces greenhouse gases. Is nuclear excluded because it is not perceived to be a “renewable” energy source in the way that power from the wind and sun is replenishable? In fact, some existing nuclear technologies are clearly renewable, making more fuel than they consume. These so-called breeder reactors are able to process the waste from existing reactors into fuel for their own use. Such reactors are already operating in Russia, France, and India and will soon be running in China and Japan. (Although this technology has not been deployed in the United States, the first reactor to make ­electricity in this country was a breeder reactor, called the Experimental Breeder Reactor-I, which began operation in the early 1950s.)

In the next 100 years or so, as our sources of fissile uranium are depleted, breeder reactors could turn existing mined-uranium wastes and high-level nuclear waste from our current fleet of water reactors into a source of clean energy that could last for thousands of years (see “Traveling-Wave Reactor”).

Nuclear power must be given all the incentives offered to solar and wind energy, including carbon credits and loan guarantees. If we are serious about addressing the problems of energy dependence and global climate change, nuclear must be part of the solution.

Andrew Kadak is Professor of the Practice in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

still from Embodied Intelligence video
still from Embodied Intelligence video

These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems

They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

protein structures
protein structures

DeepMind says it will release the structure of every protein known to science

The company has already used its protein-folding AI, AlphaFold, to generate structures for the human proteome, as well as yeast, fruit flies, mice, and more.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.