I have to admit that I could not have written the blog headline before a few minutes ago. I simply did not know enough about President-elect Obama’s choice for Secretary of Energy to make an educated statement. However, with the help of Google and some friends of Atomic Insights, I have now found enough material to make me even more excited about the future course of atomic energy in America. The stars are aligning for some really interesting and profitable times.
There is a useful and informative interview with Dr. Chu on UC Berkely News from 2005 with the title Growing energy: Berkeley Lab’s Steve Chu on what termite guts have to do with global warming. The interview reveals Dr. Chu as an inquisitive scientists who loves to teach, open new doors and investigate new ideas. Here is what he has to say about nuclear fission power:
Q: Should fission-based nuclear power plants be made a bigger part of the energy-producing portfolio?
A: Absolutely (Emphasis added). Right now about 20 percent of our power comes from nuclear; there have been no new nuclear plants built since the early ’70s. The real rational fears against nuclear power are about the long-term waste problem and [nuclear] proliferation. The technology of separating [used fuel from still-viable fuel] and putting the good stuff back in to the reactor can also be used to make bomb material.
And then there’s the waste problem: with future nuclear power plants, we’ve got to recycle the waste. Why? Because if you take all the waste we have now from our civilian and military nuclear operations, we’d fill up Yucca Mountain. [Yucca Mountain, which sits on federal land in Nevada , is under consideration as a long-term storage facility for spent nuclear fuel.] So we need three or four Yucca Mountains. Well, we don’t have three or four Yucca Mountains. The other thing is that storing the fuel at Yucca Mountain is supposed to be safe for 10,000 years. But the current best estimates – and these are really estimates, the Lab’s in fact – is that the metal casings [containing the waste] will probably fail on a scale of 5,000 years, plus or minus 2. That’s still a long time, and then after that the idea was that the very dense rock, very far away from the water table will contain it, so that by the time it finally leaks down to the water table and gets out the radioactivity will have mostly decayed.
Suppose instead that we can reduce the lifetime of the radioactive waste by a factor of 1,000. So it goes from a couple-hundred-thousand-year problem to a thousand-year problem. At a thousand years, even though that’s still a long time, it’s in the realm that we can monitor – we don’t need Yucca Mountain (Emphasis added).
Q: And all of a sudden the risk-benefit equation looks pretty good for nuclear.
Right now, compared to conventional coal, it looks good (Emphasis added) – what are the lesser of two evils? But if we can reduce the volume and the lifetime of the waste, that would tip it very much against conventional coal.”
Those few paragraphs are a clear statement about where nuclear power stands today and where it can go in the future. People should not read too much into a scientist stating that there is more work to be done with regard to research and development; that is their job and their passion. No scientist worthy of the name is satisfied with the way things are today; they can always think of ways to make them better. Also, do not focus on that “lesser of two evils” comment – it is a cliche that does no harm. Remember the first answer – Chu “absolutely” believes that nuclear fission power should be a bigger part of our energy future and he wants to recycle and reuse the fuel.
Dr. Chu is also a signatory on a document dated August 2008 titled A Sustainable Energy Future: The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy. That document – signed by all ten national laboratory directors – describes the important role that is already being played by nuclear power and provides some indications on where those directors believe that the technology will grow in the future. The document begins by stating nuclear fission power’s importance for the nation’s future and then lists some specific near term actions:
Make maximum use of the current ‘fleet’ of operating light-water reactors, including plant life extensions, extended fuel burnup, and power uprates.
Establish a national priority to immediately deploy advanced light-water reactors to meet our nation’s increasing energy demand, while limiting greenhouse gas emissions and continuing to provide critical support to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
Sustainable Energy Future – Page 1
As much as I like some of the more advanced designs, I also have a strong belief that we need to start building now. The plants that are ready to build now are light water reactors. Investing in them will not divert resources from future nuclear power development; it will provide resources because the plants will be huge money makers that attract new thinkers to the industry and provides them with the basic understanding that they need. It will also establish a whole new body of people who clearly recognize that light water reactors, despite the benefits of being proven and reliable power sources have limitations that can be overcome with different approaches.
Here is another portion of the document that provides proof of clear thinking:
We believe that nuclear energy must play a significant role in our nation’s — and the world’s — electricity portfolio for the next 100+ years. Nuclear energy has great potential for contributing more to our broader energy needs, however. For example, nuclear energy could supplement or even supplant fossil fuels by providing the electricity for electric-powered vehicles, or it could be used to generate hydrogen for vehicles that utilize hydrogen fuel cells. Nuclear energy could also help to generate high-temperature process heat, provide a valuable input for feedstock to chemical production and aid in the production of freshwater from seawater and contaminated surface and groundwater sources.
Finally, just the fact that Dr. Chu is a Nobel Prize winning scientist who has focused his career on investigating energy sources is a remarkable improvement from the previous course of selecting lawyers, bureaucrats, or skilled fundraisers as the Secretary of Energy.
It also does not hurt that he has been a respected director of a national laboratory, a position that requires a fair amount of cat-herding skill. That experience will stand him in good stead at DOE.
NEI Nuclear Notes – Legends and Facts: Steven Chu on Nuclear Energy – Note – I probably should have read this one before writing mine. It almost seems like I copied my homework from Mark Flanagan. I assure you that I did not.
Reuters – QUOTEBOX:Experts discuss Obama energy secretary pick
Update posted Dec 16, 2008 Here is the strongest reason yet to be excited by Dr. Chu’s selection – a whole host of the usual suspects that oppose nuclear fission power system deployment (Grossman, Riccio, Gunter, Marriotte) say all kinds of negative things in a Counterpunch.org article titled Dr. Chu’s Nuclear Prescription. Any Secretary of the Department of Energy candidate that receives negative reviews from that bunch is okay in my book.