I published the promised episode of The Atomic Show with clips from Steven Chu’s confirmation hearing with the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this morning. After spending several hours listening and digesting the sworn testimony of the proposed leader for the DOE, my conclusion is that there is still a lot of work left for atomic advocates.
Though fission is a proven, reliable, abundant source of heat energy that has proven by example that it can replace fossil fuel combustion in nearly every major application I can think of outside of the personal automobile, Chu still considers that nuclear power is just another option that should receive “continued” support.
He has heard the NEI pitch and can repeat it almost verbatim when asked about his stance with regard to the Energy Policy Act of 2005’s loan guarantee provision.
“The point here is that nuclear power, as I said before, is going to be an important part of our energy mix. It’s 20% of our energy use, eh, electricity generation today, but its 70% of the carbon free portion of electricity today and it is baseload, so I think that it is very important that we push ahead. I share, what little I know – again, your frustrations of the time that it is taking, and I will do my best, to um, as I said before, put together a leadership and management team that can do it in a more timely manner.”
However, even when under oath and in response to some pretty pointed questioning by senators that are obviously fission fans, the technology still falls to the bottom of Chu’s list of available and potential options. Chu places it in the same category of reluctant acceptance where he places coal with carbon capture and sequestration. He did not mention anything at all about the DOE’s Next Generation Reactor program, mixed oxide fuels, turning weapons into electricity, or other projects that seek to expand fission technology in innovative new ways. Lovins style “NO WATTS” is far higher on Dr. Chu’s list and it appears that Jimmy Carter is one of his heros.
The positive note that I got from listening to the questioning was that there are more senators that expected who want to move forward now with new nuclear plant development and fuel recycling. It is also important to note that I am not recommending any bold new government investments in supporting nuclear power development; what I want is a commitment from the government that they will treat nuclear fission fairly and that they understand that it is a technology that is here to stay.
The energy supply challenge that the country and the world faces cannot be addressed by a program that includes building a couple of demonstration plants to see how they run or one that wants to invest billions of dollars in a multi-year research effort to find a slightly more perfect way to recycle used fuel. It cannot be addressed by teaching China how to build energy efficient buildings or by training microbes to convert woody waste products into a diesel like substance on a laboratory scale.
The only thing that will move the needle is a widespread, diverse press forward with a number of different fission reactor types that focus on a variety of energy markets, use a broad base of suppliers, and diversify the fuel mix among combinations of uranium, plutonium and thorium. We will need a few more checkout lines at the NRC – make that a lot more – and we will need some of those former nukes that are in other businesses to bring their lessons learned back to fission based enterprises.
Enough written ranting. Please go and listen to episode 122 of The Atomic Show and tell me what you think. If you think I was not fair, say so. If it sounds like you need to listen to the entire hearing rather than just my selections, you can find it at Cspan. There is a big opportunity here, but we cannot let the next 90 days finish with a result that is similar to the first 90 days of the Carter Administration.