The Senate Energy and Environment committee, chaired by Senator Lisa Murkowski, held a confirmation hearing yesterday for former Texas Governor Rick Perry, the Trump Administration nominee for Secretary of Energy.
Sam Britton, the nuclear waste specialist from the Bipartisan Policy Center, produced a valuable resource by watching the full hearing and producing a series of Tweets summarizing each instance in which the questions and answers touched on nuclear topics.
Aside: I listened to most of the hearing while on a long walk, but I didn’t stop to take notes. End Aside.
Key points related specifically to nuclear energy production and its long term sustainability include:
- Support for continued investments in SMRs and advanced reactors
- Agreed that small and micro reactors might be especially useful in Alaska and at military installations. They might be the early adopters
- Major focus on developing and implementing a workable solution to used fuel that stops “kicking can”
- Recognized that Nevada senators and governor have said “No way in hell…” but he dodged making a commitment to keep waste out of Nevada
- Stated that he was a strong advocate for accepting high level waste in Texas and still continued to be reelected
- Agreed with Wyoming and Utah senators to take a hard look at DOE sales of uranium that have contributed to a market oversupply and price weakness that threatens the viability of domestic producers. Described the issue as a budget management and prioritization problem.
- Recognized the importance of DOE funds to the economy of eastern Washington. As Sen Cantwell pointed out, that expenditure represents 10-15% of the DOE’s total budget. In the polite public setting of a Senate hearing, neither Cantwell nor Perry pointed out that translates to roughly $3 billion per year in revenue to the state.
- Acknowledged the importance of DOE funds to representatives from Nevada, New York, New Mexico, and Illinois
- Pledged to work to protect science funding and recognized the government’s role in commercializing technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to release oil and gas from shale formations.
If confirmed, Gov. Perry has the opportunity to take action that might end up pleasing almost every energy-interested group. He could seek agreement with the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency to take advantage of DOE research results to establish new clean-up standards based on modern research results instead of using the 60 year-old assumption that all radiation down to a single gamma ray carries a finite negative risk to human health.
Leveraging A DOE Science Program
A GAO report titled RADIATION STANDARDS: Scientific Basis Inconclusive, and EPA and NRC Disagreement Continues published in 2000 indicates that the money spent to move dirt around could be substantially reduced if the nuclear site clean up standard was elevated just slightly from 0.15 mSv/yr (15 mrem) to 1 mSv/yr (100 mrem).
Following the issuance of that report, Senator Dominici directed funds to the DOE office of science to research the effects of low dose radiation to help make the science a little more conclusive. From 2000-2009, Dr. Noelle Metting, a radiation biologist who had spent two decades developing her expertise in the field, managed a world-leading science program that used modern biological and computing tools to detect and document the actual effects that radiation has on living organisms.
Though the program was abruptly halted for no good reason, Dr. Metting’s Low Dose Radiation Research Program uncovered sufficient new knowledge about the biological effects of ionizing radiation to be able to support a consensus determination by experts that there would be no harm to people by moving the level to 1 mSv.
Though more completed research would most likely be demanded before a consensus on even less restrictive standards could be achieved, numerous experts believe we know enough now to assert that there would be no negative human health effect even if the standard was raised to 100 mSv/yr. Most of those experts say that an unbiased look at the data indicate that the more likely effect is a moderately beneficial health result for exposed people.
The savings from cleaning to a less restrictive, and significantly easier-to-measure standard could be invested in technology development or demonstrating new power/heat production facilities at existing DOE sites instead of cleaning already clean soil.
All rhetoric to the contrary, spending less DOE money on clean-up isn’t politically popular. The senators who are focused on ensuring that the DOE maintains cold war site clean up as a high priority are fundamentally concerned with keeping the associated jobs and expenditures. The win-win-win proposal to keep spending the money, but in constructive ways would be popular for most stakeholders. There is little doubt the same skilled workers now working on clean up would be happier if they were building useful infrastructure.
With an adequately resourced effort to widely share the research results in accessible ways and to describe the benefits of slightly relaxed clean up standards in terms of enabling energy abundance, energy affordability, air pollution reductions and climate change mitigations, most of the public would become more enthusiastic about supporting nuclear energy development.
Knowledge is the key to overcoming fear. After a long period of being afraid of radiation, the U.S. was fortunate enough to find a leader capable of and willing to invest money and time in low dose research. That investment gave skilled, qualified and curious scientists the resources needed to develop sufficient knowledge to justify a giant step forward in fear reduction.
Decision makers who are not rigidly connected to the old radiation risk paradigms should now leverage that investment and take the available step forward.