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    Q&A: Options for the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant

    The Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in California, the only one still operating in the state, is set to close in 2025. A team of researchers at MIT’s Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems, Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, and Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research; Stanford’s Precourt Energy Institute; and energy analysis firm LucidCatalyst LLC have analyzed the potential benefits the plant could provide if its operation were extended to 2030 or 2045.

    They found that this nuclear plant could simultaneously help to stabilize the state’s electric grid, provide desalinated water to supplement the state’s chronic water shortages, and provide carbon-free hydrogen fuel for transportation. MIT News asked report co-authors Jacopo Buongiorno, the TEPCO Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, and John Lienhard, the Jameel Professor of Water and Food, to discuss the group’s findings.

    Q: Your report suggests co-locating a major desalination plant alongside the existing Diablo Canyon power plant. What would be the potential benefits from operating a desalination plant in conjunction with the power plant?

    Lienhard: The cost of desalinated water produced at Diablo Canyon would be lower than for a stand-alone plant because the cost of electricity would be significantly lower and you could take advantage of the existing infrastructure for the intake of seawater and the outfall of brine. Electricity would be cheaper because there’s not an electrical transmission charge — you’re right at the plant, and the power doesn’t have to be sent across the grid.

    Depending on the scale at which the desalination plant is built, you could make a very significant impact on the water shortfalls of state and federal projects in the area. In fact, one of the numbers that came out of this study was that an intermediate-sized desalination plant there would produce more fresh water than the highest estimate of the net yield from the proposed Delta Conveyance Project on the Sacramento River. You could get that amount of water at Diablo Canyon for an investment cost less than half as large, and without the associated impacts that would come with the Delta Conveyance Project.

    And the technology envisioned for desalination here, reverse osmosis, is available off the shelf. You can buy this equipment today. In fact, it’s already in use in California and thousands of other places around the world.

    Q: You discuss in the report three potential products from the Diablo Canyon plant:  desalinatinated water, power for the grid, and clean hydrogen. How well can the plant accommodate all of those efforts, and are there advantages to combining them as opposed to doing any one of them separately?

    Buongiorno: California, like many other regions in the world, is facing multiple challenges as it seeks to reduce carbon emissions on a grand scale. First, the wide deployment of intermittent energy sources such as solar and wind creates a great deal of variability on the grid that can be balanced by dispatchable firm power generators like Diablo. So, the first mission for Diablo is to continue to provide reliable, clean electricity to the grid.

    The second challenge is the prolonged drought and water scarcity for the state in general. And one way to address that is water desalination co-located with the nuclear plant at the Diablo site, as John explained.

    The third challenge is related to decarbonization the transportation sector. A possible approach is replacing conventional cars and trucks with vehicles powered by fuel cells which consume hydrogen. Hydrogen has to be produced from a primary energy source. Nuclear power, through a process called electrolysis, can do that quite efficiently and in a manner that is carbon-free.

    Our economic analysis took into account the expected revenue from selling these multiple products — electricity for the grid, hydrogen for the transportation sector, water for farmers or other local users — as well as the costs associated with deploying the new facilities needed to produce desalinated water and hydrogen. We found that, if Diablo’s operating license was extended until 2035, it would cut carbon emissions by an average of 7 million metric tons a year — a more than 11 percent reduction from 2017 levels — and save ratepayers $2.6 billion in power system costs.

    Further delaying the retirement of Diablo to 2045 would spare 90,000 acres of land that would need to be dedicated to renewable energy production to replace the facility’s capacity, and it would save ratepayers up to $21 billion in power system costs.

    Finally, if Diablo was operated as a polygeneration facility that provides electricity, desalinated water, and hydrogen simultaneously, its value, quantified in terms of dollars per unit electricity generated, could increase by 50 percent.

    Lienhard: Most of the desalination scenarios that we considered did not consume the full electrical output of that plant, meaning that under most scenarios you would continue to make electricity and do something with it, beyond just desalination. I think it’s also important to remember that this power plant produces 15 percent of California’s carbon-free electricity today and is responsible for 8 percent of the state’s total electrical production. In other words, Diablo Canyon is a very large factor in California’s decarbonization. When or if this plant goes offline, the near-term outcome is likely to be increased reliance on natural gas to produce electricity, meaning a rise in California’s carbon emissions.

    Q: This plant in particular has been highly controversial since its inception. What’s your assessment of the plant’s safety beyond its scheduled shutdown, and how do you see this report as contributing to the decision-making about that shutdown?

    Buongiorno: The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant has a very strong safety record. The potential safety concern for Diablo is related to its proximity to several fault lines. Being located in California, the plant was designed to withstand large earthquakes to begin with. Following the Fukushima accident in 2011, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviewed the plant’s ability to withstand external events (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes) of exceptionally rare and severe magnitude. After nine years of assessment the NRC’s conclusion is that “existing seismic capacity or effective flood protection [at Diablo Canyon] will address the unbounded reevaluated hazards.” That is, Diablo was designed and built to withstand even the rarest and strongest earthquakes that are physically possible at this site.

    As an additional level of protection, the plant has been retrofitted with special equipment and procedures meant to ensure reliable cooling of the reactor core and spent fuel pool under a hypothetical scenario in which all design-basis safety systems have been disabled by a severe external event.

    Lienhard: As for the potential impact of this report, PG&E [the California utility] has already made the decision to shut down the plant, and we and others hope that decision will be revisited and reversed. We believe that this report gives the relevant stakeholders and policymakers a lot of information about options and value associated with keeping the plant running, and about how California could benefit from clean water and clean power generated at Diablo Canyon. It’s not up to us to make the decision, of course — that is a decision that must be made by the people of California. All we can do is provide information.

    Q: What are the biggest challenges or obstacles to seeing these ideas implemented?

    Lienhard: California has very strict environmental protection regulations, and it’s good that they do. One of the areas of great concern to California is the health of the ocean and protection of the coastal ecosystem. As a result, very strict rules are in place about the intake and outfall of both power plants and desalination plants, to protect marine life. Our analysis suggests that this combined plant can be implemented within the parameters prescribed by the California Ocean Plan and that it can meet the regulatory requirements.

    We believe that deeper analysis would be needed before you could proceed. You would need to do site studies and really get out into the water and look in detail at what’s there. But the preliminary analysis is positive. A second challenge is that the discourse in California around nuclear power has generally not been very supportive, and similarly some groups in California oppose desalination. We expect that that both of those points of view would be part of the conversation about whether or not to procede with this project.

    Q: How particular is this analysis to the specifics of this location? Are there aspects of it that apply to other nuclear plants, domestically or globally?

    Lienhard: Hundreds of nuclear plants around the world are situated along the coast, and many are in water stressed regions. Although our analysis focused on Diablo Canyon, we believe that the general findings are applicable to many other seaside nuclear plants, so that this approach and these conclusions could potentially be applied at hundreds of sites worldwide. More

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    Making roadway spending more sustainable

    The share of federal spending on infrastructure has reached an all-time low, falling from 30 percent in 1960 to just 12 percent in 2018.

    While the nation’s ailing infrastructure will require more funding to reach its full potential, recent MIT research finds that more sustainable and higher performing roads are still possible even with today’s limited budgets.

    The research, conducted by a team of current and former MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub (MIT CSHub) scientists and published in Transportation Research D, finds that a set of innovative planning strategies could improve pavement network environmental and performance outcomes even if budgets don’t increase.

    The paper presents a novel budget allocation tool and pairs it with three innovative strategies for managing pavement networks: a mix of paving materials, a mix of short- and long-term paving actions, and a long evaluation period for those actions.

    This novel approach offers numerous benefits. When applied to a 30-year case study of the Iowa U.S. Route network, the MIT CSHub model and management strategies cut emissions by 20 percent while sustaining current levels of road quality. Achieving this with a conventional planning approach would require the state to spend 32 percent more than it does today. The key to its success is the consideration of a fundamental — but fraught — aspect of pavement asset management: uncertainty.

    Predicting unpredictability

    The average road must last many years and support the traffic of thousands — if not millions — of vehicles. Over that time, a lot can change. Material prices may fluctuate, budgets may tighten, and traffic levels may intensify. Climate (and climate change), too, can hasten unexpected repairs.

    Managing these uncertainties effectively means looking long into the future and anticipating possible changes.

    “Capturing the impacts of uncertainty is essential for making effective paving decisions,” explains Fengdi Guo, the paper’s lead author and a departing CSHub research assistant.

    “Yet, measuring and relating these uncertainties to outcomes is also computationally intensive and expensive. Consequently, many DOTs [departments of transportation] are forced to simplify their analysis to plan maintenance — often resulting in suboptimal spending and outcomes.”

    To give DOTs accessible tools to factor uncertainties into their planning, CSHub researchers have developed a streamlined planning approach. It offers greater specificity and is paired with several new pavement management strategies.

    The planning approach, known as Probabilistic Treatment Path Dependence (PTPD), is based on machine learning and was devised by Guo.

    “Our PTPD model is composed of four steps,” he explains. “These steps are, in order, pavement damage prediction; treatment cost prediction; budget allocation; and pavement network condition evaluation.”

    The model begins by investigating every segment in an entire pavement network and predicting future possibilities for pavement deterioration, cost, and traffic.

    “We [then] run thousands of simulations for each segment in the network to determine the likely cost and performance outcomes for each initial and subsequent sequence, or ‘path,’ of treatment actions,” says Guo. “The treatment paths with the best cost and performance outcomes are selected for each segment, and then across the network.”

    The PTPD model not only seeks to minimize costs to agencies but also to users — in this case, drivers. These user costs can come primarily in the form of excess fuel consumption due to poor road quality.

    “One improvement in our analysis is the incorporation of electric vehicle uptake into our cost and environmental impact predictions,” Randolph Kirchain, a principal research scientist at MIT CSHub and MIT Materials Research Laboratory (MRL) and one of the paper’s co-authors. “Since the vehicle fleet will change over the next several decades due to electric vehicle adoption, we made sure to consider how these changes might impact our predictions of excess energy consumption.”

    After developing the PTPD model, Guo wanted to see how the efficacy of various pavement management strategies might differ. To do this, he developed a sophisticated deterioration prediction model.

    A novel aspect of this deterioration model is its treatment of multiple deterioration metrics simultaneously. Using a multi-output neural network, a tool of artificial intelligence, the model can predict several forms of pavement deterioration simultaneously, thereby, accounting for their correlations among one another.

    The MIT team selected two key metrics to compare the effectiveness of various treatment paths: pavement quality and greenhouse gas emissions. These metrics were then calculated for all pavement segments in the Iowa network.

    Improvement through variation

     The MIT model can help DOTs make better decisions, but that decision-making is ultimately constrained by the potential options considered.

    Guo and his colleagues, therefore, sought to expand current decision-making paradigms by exploring a broad set of network management strategies and evaluating them with their PTPD approach. Based on that evaluation, the team discovered that networks had the best outcomes when the management strategy includes using a mix of paving materials, a variety of long- and short-term paving repair actions (treatments), and longer time periods on which to base paving decisions.

    They then compared this proposed approach with a baseline management approach that reflects current, widespread practices: the use of solely asphalt materials, short-term treatments, and a five-year period for evaluating the outcomes of paving actions.

    With these two approaches established, the team used them to plan 30 years of maintenance across the Iowa U.S. Route network. They then measured the subsequent road quality and emissions.

    Their case study found that the MIT approach offered substantial benefits. Pavement-related greenhouse gas emissions would fall by around 20 percent across the network over the whole period. Pavement performance improved as well. To achieve the same level of road quality as the MIT approach, the baseline approach would need a 32 percent greater budget.

    “It’s worth noting,” says Guo, “that since conventional practices employ less effective allocation tools, the difference between them and the CSHub approach should be even larger in practice.”

    Much of the improvement derived from the precision of the CSHub planning model. But the three treatment strategies also play a key role.

    “We’ve found that a mix of asphalt and concrete paving materials allows DOTs to not only find materials best-suited to certain projects, but also mitigates the risk of material price volatility over time,” says Kirchain.

    It’s a similar story with a mix of paving actions. Employing a mix of short- and long-term fixes gives DOTs the flexibility to choose the right action for the right project.

    The final strategy, a long-term evaluation period, enables DOTs to see the entire scope of their choices. If the ramifications of a decision are predicted over only five years, many long-term implications won’t be considered. Expanding the window for planning, then, can introduce beneficial, long-term options.

    It’s not surprising that paving decisions are daunting to make; their impacts on the environment, driver safety, and budget levels are long-lasting. But rather than simplify this fraught process, the CSHub method aims to reflect its complexity. The result is an approach that provides DOTs with the tools to do more with less.

    This research was supported through the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub by the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research and Education Foundation. More

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    Institute Professor Paula Hammond named to White House science council

    Paula Hammond, an MIT Institute Professor and head of MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, has been chosen to serve on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), the White House announced today.

    The council advises the president on matters involving science, technology, education, and innovation policy. It also provides the White House with scientific and technical information that is needed to inform public policy relating to the U.S. economy, U.S. workers, and national security.

    “For me, this is an exciting opportunity,” Hammond says. “I have always been interested in considering how science can solve important problems in our community, in our country, and globally. It’s very meaningful for me to have a chance to have an advisory role at that level.”

    Hammond is one of 30 members named to the council, which is co-chaired by Frances Arnold, a professor at Caltech, and Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research.

    “Paula is an extraordinary engineer, teacher, and colleague, and President Biden’s decision to appoint her to the council is an excellent one,” Zuber says. “I think about the work ahead of us — not just to restore science and technology to their proper place in policymaking, but also to make sure that they lead to real improvements in the lives of everyone in our country — and I can’t think of anyone better suited to the challenge than Paula.”

    Hammond, whose research as a chemical engineer touches on the fields of both medicine and energy, said she hopes to help address critical issues such as equal access to health care and efforts to mitigate climate change.

    “I’m very excited about the opportunities presented at the interface of engineering and health, and in particular, how we might be able to expand the benefits that we gain from our work to a broader set of communities, so that we’re able to address some of the disparities we see in health, which have been so obvious during the pandemic,” says Hammond, who is also a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “How we might be able to use everything from computational modeling and data science to technological innovation to equalize access to health is one area that I care a lot about.”

    Hammond’s research focuses on developing novel polymers and nanomaterials for a variety of applications in drug delivery, noninvasive imaging, solar cells, and battery technology. Using techniques for building polymers with highly controlled architectures, she has designed drug-delivering nanoparticles that can home in on tumors, as well as polymer films that dramatically improve the efficiency of methanol fuel cells.

    As an MIT faculty member and mentor to graduate students, Hammond has worked to increase opportunities for underrepresented minorities in science and engineering fields. That is a goal she also hopes to pursue in her new role.

    “There’s a lot of work to be done when we look at the low numbers of students of color who are actually going on to science and engineering fields,” she says. “When I think about my work related to increasing diversity in those areas, part of the reason I do it is because that’s where we gain excellence, and where we gain solutions and the foresight to work on the right problems. I also think that it’s important for there to be broad access to the power that science brings.”

    Hammond, who earned both her bachelor’s degree and PhD from MIT, has been a member of the faculty since 1995. She has been a full professor since 2006 and has chaired the Department of Chemical Engineering since 2015. Earlier this year, she was named an Institute Professor, MIT’s highest faculty honor. She is also one of only 25 people who have been elected to all three National Academies — Engineering, Science, and Medicine.

    She has previously served on the U.S. Secretary of Energy Scientific Advisory Board, the NIH Center for Scientific Review Advisory Council, and the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. She also chaired or co-chaired two committees that contributed landmark reports on gender and race at MIT: the Initiative for Faculty Race and Diversity, and the Academic and Organizational Relationships Working Group. More

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    Finding common ground in Malden

    When disparate groups convene around a common goal, exciting things can happen.

    That is the inspiring story unfolding in Malden, Massachusetts, a city of about 60,000 — nearly half people of color — where a new type of community coalition continues to gain momentum on its plan to build a climate-resilient waterfront park along its river. The Malden River Works (MRW) project, recipient of the inaugural Leventhal City Prize, is seeking to connect to a contiguous greenway network where neighboring cities already have visitors coming to their parks and enjoying recreational boating. More important, the MRW is changing the model for how cities address civic growth, community engagement, equitable climate resilience, and environmental justice.                                                                                        

    The MRW’s steering committee consists of eight resident leaders of color, a resident environmental advocate, and three city representatives. One of the committee’s primary responsibilities is providing direction to the MRW’s project team, which includes urban designers, watershed and climate resilience planners, and a community outreach specialist. MIT’s Kathleen Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach Education and Engagement Core at MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS), and Marie Law Adams MArch ’06, a lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), serve on the project team.

    “This governance structure is somewhat unusual,” says Adams. “More typical is having city government as the primary decision-maker. It is important that one of the first things our team did was build a steering committee that is the decision maker on this project.”

    Evan Spetrini ’18 is the senior planner and policy manager for the Malden Redevelopment Authority and sits on both the steering committee and project team. He says placing the decision-making power with the steering committee and building it to be representative of marginalized communities was intentional. 

    “Changing that paradigm of power and decision-making in planning processes was the way we approached social resilience,” says Spetrini. “We have always intended this project to be a model for future planning projects in Malden.”

    This model ushers in a new history chapter for a city founded in 1640.

    Located about six miles north of Boston, Malden was home to mills and factories that used the Malden River for power, and a site for industrial waste over the last two centuries. Decades after the city’s industrial decline, there is little to no public access to the river. Many residents were not even aware there was a river in their city. Before the project was under way, Vandiver initiated a collaborative effort to evaluate the quality of the river’s water. Working with the Mystic River Watershed Association, Gradient Corporation, and CEHS, water samples were tested and a risk analysis conducted.

    “Having the study done made it clear the public could safely enjoy boating on the water,” says Vandiver. “It was a breakthrough that allowed people to see the river as an amenity.”

    A team effort

    Marcia Manong had never seen the river, but the Malden resident was persuaded to join the steering committee with the promise the project would be inclusive and of value to the community. Manong has been involved with civic engagement most of her life in the United States and for 20 years in South Africa.

    “It wasn’t going to be a marginalized, token-ized engagement,” says Manong. “It was clear to me that they were looking for people that would actually be sitting at the table.”

    Manong agreed to recruit additional people of color to join the team. From the beginning, she says, language was a huge barrier, given that nearly half of Malden’s residents do not speak English at home. Finding the translation efforts at their public events to be inadequate, the steering committee directed more funds to be made available for translation in several languages when public meetings began being held over Zoom this past year.

    “It’s unusual for most cities to spend this money, but our population is so diverse that we require it,” says Manong. “We have to do it. If the steering committee wasn’t raising this issue with the rest of the team, perhaps this would be overlooked.”

    Another alteration the steering committee has made is how the project engages with the community. While public attendance at meetings had been successful before the pandemic, Manong says they are “constantly working” to reach new people. One method has been to request invitations to attend the virtual meetings of other organizations to keep them apprised of the project.

    “We’ve said that people feel most comfortable when they’re in their own surroundings, so why not go where the people are instead of trying to get them to where we are,” says Manong.

    Buoyed by the $100,000 grant from MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism (LCAU) in 2019, the project team worked with Malden’s Department of Public Works, which is located along the river, to redesign its site and buildings and to study how to create a flood-resistant public open space as well as an elevated greenway path, connecting with other neighboring cities’ paths. The park’s plans also call for 75 new trees to reduce urban heat island effect, open lawn for gathering, and a dock for boating on the river.

    “The storm water infrastructure in these cities is old and isn’t going to be able to keep up with increased precipitation,” says Adams. “We’re looking for ways to store as much water as possible on the DPW site so we can hold it and release it more gradually into the river to avoid flooding.”

    The project along the 2.3-mile-long river continues to receive attention. Recently, the city of Malden was awarded a 2021 Accelerating Climate Resilience Grant of more than $50,000 from the state’s Metropolitan Area Planning Council and the Barr Foundation to support the project. Last fall, the project was awarded a $150,015 Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Action Grant. Both awards are being directed to fund engineering work to refine the project’s design.

    “We — and in general, the planning profession — are striving to create more community empowerment in decision-making as to what happens to their community,” says Spetrini. “Putting the power in the community ensures that it’s actually responding to the needs of the community.”

    Contagious enthusiasm

    Manong says she’s happy she got involved with the project and believes the new governance structure is making a difference.

    “This project is definitely engaging with communities of color in a manner that is transformative and that is looking to build a long-lasting power dynamic built on trust,” she says. “It’s a new energized civic engagement and we’re making that happen. It’s very exciting.”

    Spetrini finds the challenge of creating an open space that’s publicly accessible and alongside an active work site professionally compelling.

    “There is a way to preserve the industrial employment base while also giving the public greater access to this natural resource,” he says. “It has real implications for other communities to follow this type of model.”

    Despite the pandemic this past year, enthusiasm for the project is palpable. For Spetrini, a Malden resident, it’s building “the first significant piece of what has been envisioned as the Malden River Greenway.” Adams sees the total project as a way to build social resilience as well as garnering community interest in climate resilience. For Vandiver, it’s the implications for improved community access.

    “From a health standpoint, everybody has learned from Covid-19 that the health aspects of walking in nature are really restorative,” says Vandiver. “Creating greater green space gives more attention to health issues. These are seemingly small side benefits, but they’re huge for mental health benefits.”

    Leventhal City Prize’s next cycle

    The Leventhal City Prize was established by the LCAU to catalyze innovative, interdisciplinary urban design, and planning approaches worldwide to improve both the environment and the quality of life for residents. Support for the LCAU was provided by the Muriel and Norman B. Leventhal Family Foundation and the Sherry and Alan Leventhal Family Foundation.

    “We’re thrilled with inaugural recipients of the award and the extensive work they’ve undertaken that is being held up as an exemplary model for others to learn from,” says Sarah Williams, LCAU director and a professor in DUSP. “Their work reflects the prize’s intent. We look forward to catalyzing these types of collaborative partnership in the next prize cycle.”

    Submissions for the next cycle of the Leventhal City Prize will open in early 2022.    More