Sunday, January 31, 2010

Reading the Obama Administration Tea Leaves

The Obama Administration might be accused of sending mixed signals on its attitude toward the future of nuclear power. First we have first the January 28, 2010 Obama Memo to Energy Secretary Steven Chu:

SUBJECT: Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future

Expanding our Nation’s capacity to generate clean nuclear energy is crucial to our ability to combat climate change, enhance energy security, and increase economic prosperity. My Administration is undertaking substantial steps to expand the safe, secure, and responsible use of nuclear energy. These efforts are critical to accomplishing many of my Administration’s most significant goals.

An important part of a sound, comprehensive, and long-term domestic nuclear energy strategy is a well-considered policy for managing used nuclear fuel and other aspects of the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle. Yet the Nation’s approach, developed more than 20 years ago, to managing materials derived from nuclear activities, including nuclear fuel and nuclear waste, has not proven effective. Fortunately, over the past two decades scientists and engineers in our country and abroad have learned a great deal about effective strategies for managing nuclear material. My Administration is committed to using this advanced knowledge to meet the Government’s obligation to dispose of our Nation’s used nuclear material.

Accordingly, I request that you establish a Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (Commission) and appoint its members. Those members should include recognized representatives and experts from a range of disciplines and with a range of perspectives, and may include participation of appropriate Federal officials. The Commission’s business should be conducted in an open and transparent manner.

The Commission should conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle, including all alternatives for the storage, processing, and disposal of civilian and defense used nuclear fuel and nuclear waste. This review should include an evaluation of advanced fuel cycle technologies that would optimize energy recovery, resource utilization, and the minimization of materials derived from nuclear activities in a manner consistent with U.S. nonproliferation goals.

In performing its functions, the Commission should consider a broad range of technological and policy alternatives, and should analyze the scientific, environmental, budgetary, economic, financial, and management issues, among others, surrounding each alternative it considers. Where appropriate, the Commission may also identify potential statutory changes.

The Commission should provide an interim report to you within 18 months of the date of this memorandum, and that report should be made available for public comment. The Commission should provide a final report to you within 24 months of the date of this memorandum. The Department of Energy shall provide funding and administrative support for the Commission, as you determine appropriate, so that it can complete its functions within these time periods. Additionally, all executive departments and agencies shall provide such information and assistance to the Commission as you or the Commission may request for purposes of carrying out the Commission’s functions, to the extent permitted by law. Nothing in this memorandum shall be construed to require the disclosure of classified, proprietary, law enforcement sensitive, or other information protected under governing law. This memorandum shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations. This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

You are hereby authorized and directed to publish this memorandum in the Federal Register.

The list of actual Blue Ribbon Commission appointees appears to be more calculated for political effect than for knowledge and wisdom. Although the Commission is charged with analyze the scientific, budgetary, economic, (and) financial issues involved in solutions to the used nuclear material problem. We have no economists on board, although Geologists Allison Macfarlane, believes herself to be an expert on nuclear costs. Macfarlane, however, appears to view the thorium fuel cycle in a considerably more positive light than she views the U-238 - reactor grade plutonium fuel cycle. Susan Eisenhower serves on the corporate advisory boards of Lightbridge (formerly Thorium Power), that might give her a significant knowledge of the thorium fuel cycle. The weight of the Blue Ribbon Commission lies heavily on the political/bureaucratic/expert of reference axis. The presence of two former congressmen on the commission suggests the Obama administration's desire to manage and even spin its eventual report toward politically acceptable conclusions. The last thing the Obama Administration wants is for a brilliant and charismatic scientist, like Richard Feynman to steal the show, by offering a dramatic demonstration of a politically embarrassing problem.

Thus only one real working scientist is included on the panel, that is Per Peterson. Peterson is well known to the Energy from Thorium community, and is an unabashed supporter of the use of Molten Salt nuclear technology. In addition to his expertise on Generation IV reactor design, and lowering nuclear costs, Per is also a nuclear proliferation expert, with a working knowledge of current thinking about proliferation prevention.

We know that the Yucca Mountain approach to the nuclear waste issue is off the table, and it appears quite likely that the IFR is as well. On January 15, the Defense Daily carried a story by George Lobsenz titled White House Moves To Restrict DoE Nuclear Research. That story stated:
The White House has proposed barring Energy Department research on fast reactor recycling of nuclear waste and technical support for licensing of small, modular light-water reactors, drawing protests from Energy Secretary Steven Chu that such prohibitions will have broad adverse effects, including hurting the U.S. nuclear industry's renaissance; crimping U.S. ability to influence other countries' fast reactor designs to address proliferation concerns; and taking away nuclear waste disposal options that might be considered by the administration's planned blue-ribbon panel on alternatives to the Yucca Mountain repository.
The story went on to discuss what appeared to be a conflict between the Obama White House and Energy Secretary Chu over the exclusion of fast reactor research from the DoE Research program. This is very bad news for the IFR supporters, and might explain some of their recent behavior. Thus there are signs that the Blue Ribbon Commission will seriously consider Molten Salt nuclear technology, and the thorium fuel cycle as potential remedies for the fuel cycle nuclear waste issue. Above all else the panel is clearly expected to be a reliable, unimaginative, and boring extension of the Obama ego, that will reach predictable and unimaginative conclusions.


donb said...

In the original posting:
The White House has proposed barring Energy Department research on fast reactor recycling of nuclear waste and technical support for licensing of small, modular light-water reactors...

This is a clear demonstration of failure of imagination.

The issue of energy is of such great magnitude that we can't take an either/or approach to solving the problem. We need an "...and...and..." approach, where many nuclear solutions are investigated. There are many good ideas floating around (including the LFTR), all of which need more support.

Support is often thought of as money, but if anything, the support most needed is that of a favorable climate towards nuclear energy. This climate would include expedited regulatory approval though the process that assures reasonable safety, rather than a lot of non-(safety)value-added rules.

The large dangers of conventional fuel sources need to be clearly pointed out whenever concerns about the dangers of nuclear energy sources are raised. The inadequacies of intermittant renewables need to be clearly demonstrated.

The Department of Energy could have a strong rĂ´le here if they were given proper direction.

SteveK9 said...

This is somebody reporting that something has been proposed, which happens to be opposed by the Energy Secretary. I don't think we need to get too excited yet.

Charles Barton said...

Steve, maybe not, but something strange is happening in the IFR support community. It would make sense if they feel that they are about to be left out, and that thorium might have the inside track. Other explanations are possible, and if you have one, i would like to hear it.

SteveK9 said...

Charles, I am not plugged into this the way you are, so I have no real information whatever.

Nuclear kibitzing has become a hobby for me (although I have my son studying nuclear engineering, so it won't be for him), because I am a scientist (theoretical chem by training and materials science by experience) and I truly believe nuclear is the answer to the energy problem, and the related climate change problem. I am also very enthusiastic about the LFTR approach (from what I have learned).

However, it seems to me that nuclear has such a long political hill to climb in the US, that approaches like LFTR or the IFR, although they may be technically possible are not likely in the near term. I think we are going to need to see completion of dozens or hundreds of AP's, EPR's, etc., up and running, before there will be strong backing for more advanced technologies. By that time research will be occurring in a number of places. The most important ones will probably be in Asia. The 'breeder' solution that seems likely to be tested first are the two BN800's ordered from Russia by China. So, I think LFTR and IFR and ? will have their day, but not for some time.

I wish it were otherwise.

Charles Barton said...

Steve, My concern is how are we going to get where we need to be by 2050, if the atmospheric scientists are correct. if they are wrong, we may not need to worry, but i don't think they are wrong. If they are right, we are in trouble, because no technology present technology will allow us enough energy by 2050 to live comfortable lives. We have trouble, right here in River City.

donb said...

Charles Barton wrote:
Steve, My concern is how are we going to get where we need to be by 2050, if the atmospheric scientists are correct. If they are wrong, we may not need to worry, but I don't think they are wrong.

I don't care if the atomspheric scientists are right or wrong. We are in trouble anyway. Fossil fuels are becoming scarce and expensive. This trend will only continue.

SteveK9 said...


Sorry for the delayed reply.

I believe the climate scientists are right. Optimistically, I think conventional PWR and BWR reactors will be built in large numbers in Asia. It will then become the 'duh' solution for everyone to climate change issues. I believe that there is a lot more uranium available than some (google Peter Hopf for some interesting analysis). This is the 'limits to growth fallacy. To put it another way, why have there been 30 years of proven reserves of Cu for the past 100 years?

The long-term solution will be LFTR. When 'conventional' nuclear is really rolling, governments will get serious --- China first, or maybe India, or who knows we may have come to our senses by then.

Anyway, I am mildly optimistic that we will deal with problem in time. Not soon enough to prevent painful adjustment, but soon enough to prevent absolute catastrophe.

I think Stewart Brand's new book is interesting as well, since he takes a broader outlook. He is now strongly in favor of nuclear, but addresses GM foods, and (bit scary) geoengineering as routes to solutions.


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