The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is one of the most venerated engineering institutions in the United States. Its pronouncements and considered opinions have a significant influence on our government’s policy, especially in such important fields as energy. In recent years, the MIT Energy Initiative, a multi-disciplinary team led by Professor Ernie Moniz has issued a series of reports about various energy sources in a series with titles that all begin with “The Future of ___________”.
Here is a quote from near the top of the executive summary of the report titled The Future of Natural Gas.
The overarching conclusions are that:
- Abundant global natural gas resources imply greatly expanded natural gas use, with especially large growth in electricity generation.
- Natural gas will assume an increasing share of the U.S. energy mix over the next several decades, with the large unconventional resource playing a key role.
- The share of natural gas in the energy mix is likely to be even larger in the near to intermediate term in response to CO2 emissions constraints. In the longer term, however, very stringent emissions constraints would limit the role of all fossil fuels, including natural gas, unless capture and sequestration are competitive with other very low-carbon alternatives.
- The character of the global gas market could change dramatically over the time horizon of this study
In contrast, the executive summary of The Future of Nuclear Power, published in 2003, made the following statement.
For a large expansion of nuclear power to succeed, four critical problems must be overcome:
It then proceded to provide explanations of why cost, safety, waste and proliferation were evaluated as being critical, unsolved problems that would slow the deployment of nuclear energy technologies. In 2009, MIT completed an update to the 2003 report that ends with the following statement.
The sober warning is that if more is not done, nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.
There is a stark difference in tone between the two reports that is nearly impossible to miss. Natural gas, which is still so difficult to move from place to place that it is often flared off as a dangerous waste product, is described as having a future with “greatly expanded” consumption, with “especially large growth in electricity generation”, which just happens to be the focus market for businesses that understand nuclear fission technology. On the other hand, emission free, energy dense nuclear fission deserves “sober warnings” and needs a lot of improvement before it can grow.
I cannot help but notice that The Future of Natural Gas received financial support from the American Clean Skies Foundation (aka Chesapeake Energy – both Aubrey McClendon (Chairman, Chesapeake Energy) and Tom Price (VP, Chesapeake Energy) are on the ACSF board of directors), the Hess Corporation, and the Agencia Naçional de Hidrocarburos (Columbia).
The Advisory Committee for the study was led by Mack McClarty, a natural gas industry stalwart who also served as President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, and included such oil and natural gas promoters as Denise Bode currently leader of the American Wind Energy Association but formerly CEO of the ACSF, John Hess, CEO of the Hess Corporation and Greg Staples from ACSF.
On the other hand, The Future of Nuclear Power was sponsored by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, which seems to have no connection to the nuclear energy industry. Its advisory board included both Thomas Cochran from the Natural Resources Defense Council and John Podesta both of whom have a long history of expressing strong skepticism about the use of nuclear energy.
MIT will be hosting its annual energy conference on March 16 and 17. Early bird registration ends on Monday, February 20th. The conference agenda includes a session titled The Future of Baseload Power. Here is a brief video describing that session, which is on a topic that is right in the middle of nuclear energy’s wheelhouse.
As you can see from that video, MIT considers nuclear energy to be an “also ran” even in the battle for baseload electricity generation market share. As a side note, the scheduled keynote speaker for the Saturday session of the Conference is Marvin Odum, the President of Shell Oil Company, one of the largest natural gas extraction companies in the world.
Am I sounding too conspiratorial or can you connect the dots to see how money and sponsorship from the natural gas industry just might be swaying MIT’s predictions for the future of energy?
With permission, I wanted to share this note posted to a private email list to which I subscribe. I am not publishing the author’s name, but Dr. Moniz and some of his colleagues at MIT might be able to recognize who wrote the note:
Colleagues, I’m forwarding this to you, but not because I recommend attending. This is an annual student-run conference at MIT, and it is exceptionally well done organizationally. Anything involving “energy” at MIT goes straight through the MIT energy guru, Ernie Moniz. And nuclear is an afterthought at best with Moniz. In the first 5 conferences, I was told by several MIT nuclear engineering graduate students that nuclear got almost no play. Last year, driven by frustration, several of the NE grad students got on the inside and inserted a couple of panels in the program. I chaired one of the panels, a session on small modular reactors. The conference, and our panel session, were both very well attended. I guess that there were about 500 conference attendees, and maybe 200 at our session. My reward for attending was the opening night reception. The keynote speakers were Ed Markey followed by Moniz. The two of them kept pointing and winking and smiling knowingly at each other. As I dimly recall anything they said about nuclear was cast in a negative tone. It was nauseating.
It appears from this year’s program that the MIT NE students returned to the sidelines. I’ve searched the program for anything to do with nuclear power, but can’t find a thing other than Nu Scale Power’s participation in a poster session that will have about 100 other presenters.
How can one of our absolute best technical institutions act this stupidly? Their nuclear engineering program was probably the best in the nation, maybe along with Michigan, for a long time. MIT’s NE department has fallen on hard times with retirements and departures, but they are still top-drawer and may very well regain #1. Their drawing power remains outstanding. On the other hand, perhaps their institutional neglect of, or hostility toward, nuclear will catch up with them. In that event, perhaps they are headed to a long, slow decline in nuclear engineering research and education.
Just in case you do not follow the link on Ed Markey’s name, let me make it clear that Rep. Markey has a strong relationship with the natural gas industry. His congressional district hosts the oldest liquified natural gas import terminal in the United States.
The facility started operating a few years before Markey was first elected to Congress in 1976 and it has prospered for the past three decades, partially as a result of the significant constraints placed on nuclear energy development in New England and the early shutdowns of Yankee Rowe, Connecticut Yankee, Maine Yankee and Millstone unit 1. Markey’s antinuclear activism played a role in achieving those reductions in nuclear energy output that would have reduced the need to burn expensively transported natural gas imported from foreign countries.
Side bar: Long time Atomic Insights readers might remember a challenge to the MIT energy faculty issued last summer. My friends who seek to remind the world that the United States developed a rather amazing nuclear energy technology called the Integral Fast Reactor wanted a chance to discuss the MIT report on the future of the nuclear fuel cycle.
I just heard back from a contact at MIT that they are still thinking about responding, but not directly, perhaps sometime next fall. I have been following through every few months; each time that contact tells me that the timing is just not right or that the relentless march of semester schedules prevents action and organization.
There is one more connection worth drawing clearly. The IFR program was was killed just as it was getting ready to demonstrate a viable, passively safe, closed fuel cycle in 1994. The fatal blow was the Clinton Administration budget submitted for fiscal year 1994, which zeroed out all funding for nuclear energy research. That budget proposal was strongly influenced by the same Mack McLarty mentioned above as the leader of the Advisory Committee for the MIT study on the Future of Natural Gas.
Update: (Posted February 25, 2012) On February 23, 2012, John Deutch, who was a co-chair for MIT’s Future of Nuclear Power (see page iii), published a fawning op-ed about natural gas and North American oil as abundant energy sources. Here is a quote:
The outlook for gas is that we are going to have an extended supply available at a reasonable cost of extraction for the foreseeable future. This implies that gas prices will be low and that gas will become a substitute for renewables, nuclear, and coal plants, especially older ones. We will be generating electricity from gas at a much lower cost than other developed countries, our competitors, will have to pay.
In the meantime, there is a great deal more potential for oil production in North America from shale. North Dakota is becoming the third-largest state producer in the United States. North America will be producing a higher percentage of its oil requirements than it is currently and importing less oil from abroad. The economic consequences are enormous.
See what I mean about being captured? Perhaps “victim of groupthink” of the northeastern US elites would be a better description. End Update.