Thursday, December 11, 2008

Obama’s Presumed Pick for Energy Sec’y Bodes Well for Energy, Idaho

If President-Elect (my wife hates that phrase, but so it is) Obama follows through in selecting Steven Chu as his Secretary of Energy, the White House will gain a strong advocate for alternative energy that includes a ringing endorsement for nuclear power and nuclear fuel recycling, two bits of information that bode well for eastern Idaho’s nuclear industry.

Chu, a physicist and currently head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, looks to be a good fit for the post, given his background in research into alternative energy, specifically solar and biofuels from waste products rather than food products.

This is what Chu had to say about nuclear power and fuel recycling in 2005 (yes, it’s old, but still heartening; red the entire article here):

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

A: 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.

I like his dual approach – fuel recycling, which reduces the amount of waste, and then research into cutting down the radioactivity. I believe it can be done, if we can get past the political obstacles. Chu’s interest in nuclear should keep that avenue open in the White House, as long as Obama is willing to listen to those he’s appointed, rather than the chicken littles in the Democratic party who would rather see Ed Begley-inspired alternative energy rather than nuclear. And though Republicans might grumble that Chu is a believer in global warming, I say at this point that global warming deniers in the party need to set those political prejudices aside and figure out that the Drill Baby Drill attitude is, at best, a short-term, short-sighted fix to our energy dependence on other nations. Let’s find out what we can do here to produce the energy we need – and find ways to do so not at the expense of the environment.

Chu’s stance on biofuel research also bodes well for states like Idaho, where there are ample supplies of crop waste products (anything from corn stalks to wheat stalks to grasses) that could be converted into biofuels.

Some in political circles grumble that Chu is politically inexperienced, and that a politically-savvy person, like Colin Powell or (heaven forbid) Arnold Schwarzenegger should be Obama’s pick for Energy Secretary instead. Color me funny, but I think the top nob in Washington concerned with energy ought to be someone who knows about energy. Powell has lots of good going for him politically, but I don’t know that he’s all that knowledgeable on energy. And then there’s Scwarzenegger. Do we really want Ah-nold in the Cabinet? Sure, he’s promoted alternative energy in California, but every time I listen to him talk about it I’m reminded of Ratbert the consultant making up for his lack of knowledge about computers by being exuberant. Could Scwarzenegger do anything than dart about shouting “Alternative energy! Wahoo!” We need someone who understands this stuff, can talk with others who understands this stuff and can leave the politicking to others. We don’t need a cheerleader.

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