Saturday, December 06, 2008

An Energy Pick I Can Live With

WashPo's Al Kamen has a new piece on Obama's possible choices for remaining cabinet picks, including that for Energy Secretary. While the names we've been hearing for awhile are repeated, including Google's Dan Reicher (who according to Tom Blees was intimately involved in killing off the IFR in the Clinton Administration). However, Kamen also repeated some Washington buzz I hadn't heard:

There's buzz that the transition folks are also looking hard at some scientific types for the energy job, including Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at Cal-Berkeley. Chu co-chaired a group producing the international study "Lighting the Way: Toward a Sustainable Energy Future." He also shared the Nobel Prize for physics, but that was back in 1997.
Who is Steven Chu? From what I gather, this is the guy we want to head Energy. This is what he said about nuclear energy issues back in 2005:

Should fission-based nuclear power plants be made a bigger part of the energy-producing portfolio?

Absolutely. 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.

And all of a sudden the risk-benefit equation looks pretty good for nuclear.

Right now, compared to conventional coal, it looks good - 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.

I like the sound of that! Furthermore, an experienced administrator from one of the national labs is a much better pick than an outsider unfamiliar with what DOE actually does and the byzantine world of internal DOE politics. In my opinion, this is by far the best candidate I've seen mentioned for this position. We should do what we can (however limited) to advance his candidacy.


Ashutosh said...

That sounds good! I was aware of Chu's physics work but I was not aware of his stance on nuclear

fusion_is_fundamental said...

The only types of nuclear reactors worth building

I hope Chu is leaning in that direction. Dr. Jim Hansen is:

Finrod said...

While I admire the concept of the liquid fluoride thorium breeder reactor, as well as the talented folks who are devoting their efforts to promoting it, I would balk at claiming that it is 'the only type of nuclear reactor worth building'.

George Carty said...

My preference would be to restart IFR development and start LFTR development.

Build PBMRs until IFR is completed, then split 2:1 between IFRs and PBMRs until LFTR is completed, then split 2:1 between LFTRs and IFRs.