John Holdren holds what might be the longest complete title available in the current Administration. He serves as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).
In his role as an academic, a scientist and appointed government official in several previous administrations, he is a long time observer and participant in U.S. national energy policy. He has been featured on Atomic Insights several times in the past.
His general attitude towards nuclear energy for the past 40 years can best be described as cautiously skeptical; he has always recognized the potential of unlocking the incredibly dense energy that is locked up inside atomic nuclei, but he has also expressed concern about the possibility of harm from adding a little bit of additional radioactive material to our environment.
He has also been worried about the risks associated with allowing more entities to gain access to fissionable materials. Like many in the non-proliferation community, he believes there is a worrisome potential that other entities will be tempted to invest the substantial resources required to assemble those materials into a nuclear bomb.
In recent years, he has also consistently said that more research needs to be done aimed at finding ways to reduce the initial costs of nuclear power plants and to develop a publicly acceptable long term plan for used nuclear fuel. He has, in the past, published papers that were skeptical about the economic viability of recycling used nuclear fuel.
Knowing a bit about Dr. Holdren’s opinions about nuclear energy, I enjoyed hearing what he had to say as the opening speaker at Friday’s historically important White House Summit on Nuclear Energy.
I’m cautiously encouraged. It seems that Dr. Holdren has been listening to people like Ken Caldeira, James Hansen, and the International Panel on Climate Change about the near impossibility of addressing climate change if nuclear energy is marginalized or kept off the table altogether. He has also been listening to his boss’s public statements about nuclear energy, which have been consistently expressed since at least 2007 when he began running for President.
My interpretation of his talk [a full transcript of which is below] is that Dr. Holdren has fully accepted the fact that there is no way to reach stated energy and climate goals without a strong and growing contribution from nuclear energy, both in the United States and around the world. He still has a ways to go in recognizing the fact that many of his most pressing concerns have been well mitigated by steady advances in technology and operational understanding.
He also needs to begin hearing more from people who have solid proposals for rule or policy changes that can change the cost and reduce the schedule uncertainty of developing and deploying nuclear energy while providing improved safety and security.
Dr. Holdren, as a direct representative of the President, has also subtly issued a challenge to people who think nuclear energy is already important and ready now to make additional contributions to the safety, reliability, security and cleanliness of our energy system.
The Administration needs our help to sell this message to the American public. They have proven that they are willing to be at our side, but we cannot expect them to be our marketing arm.
We cannot expect elected politicians or appointed government employees to carry the whole burden of convincing skeptics that building increasing numbers of new nuclear facilities in a wide range of sizes and locations is an important and productive investment. They need us to get the people excited and supportive of the reality that making the investments will provide the wide-ranging improvements that many of us believe are possible.
The Administration’s decision to host a wide ranging discussion on nuclear energy in the White House sends a powerful message of support; we must work hard, with wide open eyes, to take full advantage of that step forward.
Now, I need to get on the road so that I can participate in some of the Sunday afternoon events at the American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting in Washington, DC. I look forward to seeing some of you there.
Transcript of John Holdren’s opening remarks at the White House Summit on Nuclear Energy, held Friday, November 6, 2015
Thank you very much Jason. And on behalf of President Obama, thanks to you all of you for coming. This is an amazing crowd. I have been entertaining myself by reading the list of participants and your affiliations. And I have to extend a particular note of thanks to Kirsten Cutler from OSTP [Assistant Director, Nuclear Energy and Nonproliferation] for all the work that she put in organizing this meeting and helping us recruit such an amazing collection of leaders in this field.
As everybody is aware, President Obama considers addressing the global climate change challenge to be a top priority. At the end of August, at the Glacier Conference in Alaska, he said the following, “I am convinced that no challenge poses a greater threat to our future and future generations than a change in climate. This is one of those rare issues, because of its magnitude, of its scope, that if we don’t get it right, we may not be able to reverse and we may not be able to adapt sufficiently. There is such a thing as being too late when it comes to climate change.” The challenge of acting in time, and ultimately acting adequately, is daunting for both the United States and for the world. Let me take a look at the numbers. Most of the world’s nations have embraced the goal of holding the increase in the globally and annually averaged near-surface air temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius above the preindustrial level. Today we’re pushing through 0.9 degrees Celsius and still rising. The middle of the road estimates by the climate science community are that achieving a high likelihood of keeping the ultimate increase below 2 degrees C will require global reductions in the offending emissions, principally greenhouse gases, but also particulate black carbon, by something in the range of 50% below 1990 levels by 2050 all the way to 0 by or before 2100.
Under the widely shared assumption that the industrialized countries, having contributed the larger part of cumulative atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases to date should go first, and initially fastest in emissions reductions, the United States and other industrialized nations have agreed to aim for something like 80% reductions from 1990 levels by 2050, 80 per cent.
Now in terms of heat trapping potential, on a 100 year time scale, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use have lately accounted for about 55% of total greenhouse gas emissions world wide. And carbon dioxide emissions from electric power plants have accounted for about 40% of that or 22% of the global total.
In the United States, CO2 emissions from fossil fuels are three quarters of national greenhouse gas emissions, with power generation, as it does world wide, accounting for about 40% of the CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use in total. Thus in this country, CO2 from power generation is 30% of national emissions of all greenhouse gas, all types.
Both for the United States and for the world, the electric power sector is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases among all sectors of human activity. It’s bigger than transportation, it’s bigger than agriculture, it’s bigger than non-electric uses of energy in industry and it’s bigger than non-electric uses of energy in residential and commercial buildings.
That means that national and global goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions can only be met with the help of significant reductions in the electric power sector. Indeed, probably larger than proportionate cuts, given the leverage that comes from the degree to which both emissions and decisions in the electric power sector are concentrated in large facilities and large organizations.
But achieving reductions in the magnitude required is going to be a huge challenge. Both in the United States and world wide, two thirds of electricity generation still comes from burning coal, oil and natural gas. And virtually all of that without any capture of the carbon dioxide combustion product. Two billions tons per year from fossil fuel power plants in the United States, 13 billion tons worldwide. I might add that over 70% of that global power sector total is from coal fired power plants, more than 70%.
Of the 1/3 of global electricity generation currently coming from non-fossil sources, about half is coming from hydro power, a third is coming from nuclear and a sixth is coming from non hydro renewables. In the United States, in round numbers, 60% of the non fossil generation is nuclear, 20% is hydro and the last 20% is non-hydro renewables.
But nuclear generation, as everyone in this room knows, I think, has been more or less flat in gigawatt-hours generated for a decade, and hydro for far longer than that, fluctuating mainly with differences in runoff. Only the non-hydro renewables have been growing recently and very dramatically at that. In the case of wind, it increased more than three-fold between 2008 and 2014, solar electricity generation increased more than 20-fold between 2008 and 2014.
The most conspicuous greenhouse gas relevant trend on the fossil generation side in the United States has, of course, been the rising prominence of natural gas, which went from 16% of generation in 2000 to 27% in 2014, while coal fell from 52% in 2000 to 39% in 2014.
So looking ahead, what are the options for achieving the deep cuts in greenhouse gas reductions from the power sector that are needed? I’m sure everyone in this room can recite the list; it’s not that long. Increased efficiency in electricity end use, more switching from coal to natural gas, advanced fossil fuel power plants with higher efficiency and, much more important, but also more difficult and costly the capacity to capture, use and store carbon dioxide; more renewables for electricity generation, particularly some of the non-hydro renewables, particularly wind and solar that have large potential for further expansion; more nuclear fission and ultimately, maybe, nuclear fusion if it can be made practical and affordable.
All of these options have attractions all of them have shortcomings, including for some, hurdles to overcome in terms of practicality, economics, or public acceptance, with the prospects for overcoming these hurdles subject to considerable uncertainty.
Increased end-use efficiency is at least arguably, the largest and cheapest option. After all, from 1975 to 2010, the United States reduced the amount of primary energy needed to yield a real dollar of GDP at modest and sometimes negative costs. Every respectable study shows that there is much more potential where that came from.
But still, efficiency has limits. One still needs supply. And in the case of electricity, there’s reason to think that demand will be driven up by such rapidly expanding end-uses as the increasing electrification of transportation and perhaps desalination of sea water.
As for the supply side, again I think we all pretty much know where the challenges lie. Burning Natural gas still releases a lot of CO2, much less than coal, and careful attention must be paid to methane leaks in production and transport to avoid off-setting even that advantage.
Carbon capture, utilization and storage for fossil fueled power plants is still at an early stage of development, with costs that are highly uncertain, but in no event, likely to be attractive unless there is a substantial actual or virtual price on carbon.
Intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar, become more challenging with respect to integration with other sources the larger their share becomes and their cost goes up substantially in circumstances where storage is required.
Growing biofuels for electricity generation is demanding of land and water and may compete with food production as well as entailing high costs in transporting the fuel to centralized power plants.
Nuclear fusion doesn’t work yet, and we can’t be sure it will or what it will cost if it does.
And as for nuclear fission, the focus of this meeting, I’ll come to its challenges in just a moment, but the point I want to make first is that this litany of challenges facing our options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector is not a reason for taking any of them off the table.
Given the importance, indeed the imperative of electricity supply that is adequate, affordable, reliable, secure and far more climate-friendly than today’s, the only sensible strategy is to do everything we reasonably can do through research, development, innovation and public-private partnership to master the challenges that each option presents to give the best chance of being able to fashion a deployed mix of electricity supply options that meets all of these criteria and one other, a high degree of portfolio diversity as a hedge against inevitable uncertainty and surprises.
And that, precisely, is this Administration’s strategy.
Let me turn finally to the challenges facing the nuclear fission option. The challenges that we must count on research, development, innovation and public-private partnerships to address. Again, I think we all know what they are.
They are to reduce capital costs, to maximize safety against malfunction, mistakes, malevolence, and natural disasters, to manage radioactive wastes in ways that are not merely technically sound, but can gain the confidence of the public, and to minimize the pathways by which nuclear energy technology contributes to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
What today’s meeting is precisely about is how ingenuity and innovation and partnership can contribute to overcoming these challenges and thus to making nuclear energy everything that it can be, and thus a major contributor in this country and worldwide to minimizing the risks from climate change.
I look forward to hearing the terrific ideas I’m sure will materialize from this discussion. Thank you very much.