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Tough Tech' for Climate: Innovation Challenges, University Responsibilities and Some Comments on the Nuclear Role

Understanding Tomorrow's Nuclear Energy lecture series

Nov. 30, 3:30-5 p.m.
Stewart Center Fowler Hall
Presented by Dr. Richard K. Lester, associate provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Recorded Presentation

The Understanding Tomorrow’s Nuclear Energy lecture series hosted by Purdue University and Duke Energy is partnering with the Purdue Engineering Distinguished Lecture Series to host Dr. Richard K. Lester, who will present “Tough Tech’ for Climate: Innovation Challenges, University Responsibilities, and Some Comments on the Nuclear Role” followed by a panel discussion. 

Dr. Lester’s lecture looks at how responding effectively to the global climate challenge will require the rapid deployment of tools and technologies we have now and will also require inventing, developing, and deploying tools and technologies not yet in hand. What are the special responsibilities of research universities in meeting the climate innovation challenge? This presentation will discuss different ways for universities to engage in climate-related research, education, and innovation, including the case of nuclear energy technology.

Panel discussion participants include Dr. Lefteri Tsoukalas, professor and former head of the School of Nuclear Engineering, and Ms. Morgan Smith, senior in the School of Nuclear Engineering, president of Purdue Chapter of Women in Nuclear Engineering and vice president of Purdue Chapter of American Nuclear Society. 

Post-lecture summary

According to Dr. Lester, there are two “tracks” that must be pursued to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One track is to go forward as far and fast as we can with the technologies and policies we have now. The other track is to invest in, invent and deploy new technologies and tools.

“By some estimates, 50% of the reductions in carbon emissions that will be needed to get to net zero will require technologies that are not yet in hand,” he said in his lecture at Purdue.

But universities have a special responsibility in making these technologies a reality.

“Research universities can help solve hard problems requiring forefront science and cutting-edge technology,” he said.

Dr. Lester mentioned several other ways that universities are unique in their ability to address climate change. One way is through shrinking a campus’s carbon footprint. As an example, he pointed out a study Purdue and Duke Energy are conducting. This study is investigating the potential of using advanced nuclear reactor technology to power Purdue’s campus.

Universities can also make a difference through supporting the climate-related efforts of local communities, providing industrial partners with new tools and methods for decarbonization, and using factual information and analyses to advise new policy and regulatory frameworks.

Dr. Lester believes that nuclear energy will be essential to both existing and new technologies. “Can we achieve net zero emissions without nuclear? Nothing is impossible, but having looked at many, many assessments of this question, my conclusion – as well as the conclusion of many other people – is that the contribution of nuclear energy is going to be extraordinarily important,” he said.

In a panel discussion with Dr. Tsoukalas and Ms. Smith following his lecture, Dr. Lester said that the speed at which research discoveries can be used affects how quickly climate change is addressed. Improving how research is organized, such as by bringing practitioners into the research process earlier, could accelerate the flow of new technical knowledge into practice.

“We just need to get smarter about doing things faster, maybe making some mistakes along the way,” he said.

The panelists also pointed out the need for nuclear engineers to engage more with policymakers. They discussed how younger generations, which will likely be impacted the most by climate change, tend to have a more positive attitude toward nuclear energy than previous generations. This attitude will help nuclear technology to reach its potential for curbing greenhouse gas emissions. 

More about Dr. Richard K. Lester

As associate provost of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Lester oversees the international activities of the Institute. Dr. Lester is the Japan Steel Industry Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering and previously served as head of the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering. Professor Lester’s research focuses on innovation, productivity and industrial competitiveness, and he is also well known for his work on nuclear technology management and policy. He recently completed a term as chair of the National Academies’ Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy, and he currently serves as chair of the Council of Advisors of the Global Forum on Nuclear Education, Science, Technology, and Policy.


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