Is Nuclear Energy the Answer to a Carbon-Constrained World?

Posted: November 29, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, 2010 at 4:47 pm

Allison Macfarlane. Creative Services photo

As one of the few reliable producers of carbon-free baseload electrical power currently available, nuclear energy has the potential to be a partial solution to mitigate impending climate change.

In the next Vision Series lecture on Monday, Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. in the Center for the Arts Concert Hall at the Fairfax Campus, Allison Macfarlane, a Mason associate professor in environmental science and policy, will discuss her area of expertise, nuclear energy.

She will explain that more than 30 countries now use nuclear reactors to produce electricity and the number is likely to expand to meet growing energy needs with sources of power that don’t emit carbon dioxide.

In fact, Macfarlane notes, more than 60 countries have expressed interest in acquiring nuclear power plants, and the United Arab Emirates has signed a $40 billion deal to build four plants.

Though nuclear reactors operate more safely and efficiently than they did 20 years ago, their global expansion is not without obstacles. High capital costs of nuclear reactors; lack of a solution to nuclear waste disposal; and the potential for both nuclear weapons proliferation and security issues at reactors may prevent extensive expansion.

The potential for a world with many more nuclear power plants than today may remain fuzzy for the next few decades, Macfarlane says.

A leading expert on nuclear-waste disposal, Macfarlane recently sat on a National Research Council committee evaluating the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear-power research and development programs. She is the co-editor, with with Rodney Ewing of the University of Michigan,of the book “Uncertainty Underground: Yucca Mountain and the Nation’s High-Level Nuclear Waste” (MIT Press, 2006).

She also is chair of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which runs the Doomsday Clock monitoring the threat of “midnight,” or the end of the world should nuclear weapons or other human development endanger Earth.

Macfarlane was also one of 15 experts chosen by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to sit on a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. The commission will provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the nation’s used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.

Macfarlane has a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ticket information: Free tickets are required. Tickets are available online, at the Center for the Arts Ticket Office (Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), and on the evening of the event.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu