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  • What Chu Should Do on Nuclear

    So it looks like President-elect Obama is going to name his energy and environment team next week. Among the purported choices is Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu to lead the Department of Energy. One of the questions on our minds is how will he handle nuclear energy policy.

    It is impossible to judge whether he’ll make a good secretary of energy. He certainly has the technical background to know fission from fusion. But knowing the difference between cracking atoms and crashing them does not make a good energy secretary. The job will be to articulate and execute the policy vision set forth by President Obama. It is to be more of a manager and leader than a smarty-pants. After all, the law of comparative advantage says Dr. Chu might be better suited for a lab than the hot seat in the DOE offices.

    So where will Dr. Chu come down? We can’t tell. But we won’t hold it against him that he comes from a lab background. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll want DOE to research and develop everything. Surely he’ll want to commercialize things, won’t he? He must know, like all good things, that DOE research programs come to an end,right?

    Let’s give him not just the benefit of the doubt, but some priorities that he could start with. (By the way, these recommendations will be part of a more detailed paper we’ll release next week.):

    Set an end-game for Nuclear Power 2010 (NP 2010). We are not saying to kill NP2010. The program to help get through the arduous plant permitting and design certification process was needed when it was started. But it’s beginning to drag. Let’s kick it into high gear, get the plants and designs through the bureaucracy by 2010 and call it a victory.

    Accelerate Next Generation Nuclear Plant program (NGNP). The Next Generation Nuclear Plant is an important public/private cost-sharing technology development program. This is where the next public-private push should concentrate. The world of high-temperature gas cooled reactors being developed by NGNP are critical to the future of nuclear energy. We need an efficient regulatory process to support this technology’s introduction into the market place—and we need it now.

    Stay out of the commercial spent fuel recycling business. The Bush Administration should be lauded for not only bringing nuclear energy back into the energy debate but also for making the role of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel part of that conversation. That said, the Bush plan to construct a national reprocessing facility was not a good idea. Dr. Chu should be thanking his lucky stars that he’s not being handed another bloated DOE construction project. He should ensure that he offers his successor that same dignity by not starting such a project.

    Ensure a science-based outcome for Yucca Mountain. President-elect Obama has stated he does not support constructing a spent nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. He believes that the people of Nevada do not support the project and that its safety has not been scientifically proven. Luckily, deciding such an outcome is neither his nor Dr. Chu’s concern. Instead, they should support the NRC’s efforts to process DOE’s Yucca application and come to its own science-based conclusions.

    Transfer responsibility for commercial used fuel management to the private sector. This is the big enchilada, folks. It is not coincidental that the front-end of the fuel cycle and operations are both privately operated and functional. On the other hand, back-end activity (waste management) falls under the purview of the federal government and it is completely dysfunctional. It is time that we change this. On day one, Secretary Chu should announce a major effort to overhaul how the nations manages its spent nuclear fuel.

    And for a head start, here is a comprehensive plan on how to do it.

    Posted in Energy [slideshow_deploy]

    9 Responses to What Chu Should Do on Nuclear

    1. Bill Hannahan, CO says:

      Unfortunately the DOE chief serves mainly as an accountant, not an engineer or scientist. The budget is only $25 billion, spent largely on military issues.


      Our energy program is determined by a group of gray haired law school graduates in Washington called Congress, which explains the mess we are in.

      If we gave him $150 billion per year for the next ten years with instructions to solve the world’s energy problems, I believe he could do it.

      Yucca Mountain is a bad idea, nuclear advocates should call for its closing to stop the waste of money and to close the open wound it has become.

      The recommended solution should be the deep sea bed burial option to silence the “no final solution” crowd.


      It is the safest option, very inexpensive and final. It only isolates 15% of mined uranium, the rest is available at enrichment plants to fuel advanced reactors.

      We are only talking about 10-15 pounds of spent fuel per lifetime supply of electricity, and future generations can dig it up if they really need it.

      Frankly the world will still have abundant supplies of uranium and thorium when the sun is running on empty, swells up and destroys the earth.

      So lets implement the “final solution” to silence the critics, until recycling and advanced reactors become cost effective.

    2. cdav florida says:

      keeping the gov out of fuel recycle sounds like "Raygunomics" (a dismal failure) the gov stayed out of banking and now we have to pay for it. handling nuke fuel should be extremely regulated mainly because we have to bail them out if the recycle companies nuke some local small town. they walk away-while the rest of us have to support the victims.(ever hear of Price Anderson?) conservative thinking of letting business take care of itself has shown us the greed that can evolve (banking). There are a lot of unknown to the public secrets that are kept quiet involving the fuel recycle business-and they are not funny.

    3. JV, Florida says:

      First of all, reprocessing of nuclear fuel will not nuke a town, that should be the first thing considered. Secondly, the public is not all that smart anyway, most will not take the time to learn before the pie holes start to open and would not understand if they were informed. The Price – Anderson was enacted in 1957 to protect industry above $10 billion, which would bankrupt most utilities anyway. It is like a federal guarantee for your money in banks, it protects the people when utilities may not have the funds to do it. No nothing is funny about the handling of alot of things but, it is best kept to the professionals anyway, or, you wind up with a bunch of knitting old ladies who become scientist all of a sudden and do nothing but hinder progress.

    4. Pingback: What Chu Should Do on Nuclear « Conservative Thoughts and Profundity

    5. Joshua, DC says:

      Most right-wingers can't comprehend the cognitive dissonance when liberals don't conform to the namby-pamby environmentalist stereotypes. Here Chu is obviously a pragmatist on nuclear energy. From a 2005 interview, Dr. Chu answers:

      "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."

      Dr. Chu is ALSO a signatory to "A Sustainable Energy Future: The Essential Role of Nuclear Energy," a DOE report released this past August.

      Do you hear that sound? It's the sound of another right-wing nut's mind being blown… Cognitive Dissonance.

    6. Marcel F. Williams says:

      At minimum, the Obama administration should promote an existing site nuclear policy to triple current nuclear capacity at already existing sites. The Federal government should come in as a minority investor (up to 45%) with private companies and regional utilities as majority investors. But there's plenty of room at current nuclear sites to build a lot more reactors.

      Secondly, the Federal government should offer to build Federal radwaste repositories within states that are currently producing radioactive materials. Such facilities would store and protect spent fuel for up to 200 years until it is reprocessed and used for fuel.

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    8. Mike, White Plains, says:

      The path advocated in this blog is not consistent with making nuclear power a competitor to the coal industry for electricity generation. The high-temp gas cooled reactors, combined with no reprocessing of fuel, lead to no solution to the waste problem – Yucca is not big enough to work if we go the HTGR/no-reprocessing route, not even close. The small HTGRs discussed at the recent Lehrman-hosted seminar on alternate nuclear power are the sensible path if either (A) the location of the plant is too insecure (related designs are pitched for military bases) or if (B) all you want is process heat, waste be damned (coal to liquids and tar sands, as executed by people who anticipate the Rapture soon, or take a Keynesian view of "the long run").

      So, instead of allowing nuclear to compete with the hydrocarbon economy, this approach makes nuclear a servant of the hydrocarbon/military economy, AND makes the status-quo nuclear waste problem worse.

      I simply cannot understand how this is sensible unless the Heritage Foundation envisions a future in which we attempt to militarily dominate the world's hydrocarbon resources in order to economically dominate a world held hostage to the python-like hydrocarbon economy. This is a moot point now for economic reasons, as well as the fact that Asians will develop electricity-oriented closed nuclear fuel cycles anyway, and proceed to further economic triumph based on them… but maybe Heritage is stuck in 2003.

      The effect of this approach on the only true "heritage" anyone has, their society's future generations, will be catastrophic.

      PS: "After all, the law of comparative advantage says Dr. Chu might be better suited for a lab than the hot seat in the DOE offices." If that is what the law says, then we should both stick to posting things on the internet. Running a national lab is quite political.

      PPS: Characterizing Bell Labs as private sector is disingenuous. It only existed due to massive government protected monopoly profits and nothing like it has been seen since.

      Lastly, advocating the combination of limited liability corporations, private profits, and nuclear waste, has got to set a new benchmark for dogmatism.

    9. Kings Cross Sydney says:

      After that I think we will be moving out of Nevada. It was just what we needed to keep us going for the future. We drove round most of Nevada picking his energy and environment team up so it took an hour to do a 20 minute journey.

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