Tuesday, September 16, 2008

McCain and Obama Respond to Science Questionnaire

partner_sea Actually, Obama got his questionnaire in a couple of weeks ago, with McCain following this week. But the Scientists and Engineers for America, the non-partisan group that prepared the questionnaire, have set up a page so you can see both candidates' responses together. Perhaps not too surprisingly, the areas of difference are very few. McCain tilts a bit more toward ethical considerations on hot-button issues (stem cells, genetic research) but Obama is certainly conscious of such considerations in his answers. Likewise, Obama tilts a bit more toward environmental concerns where that is a consideration (ocean health, water) but McCain doesn't neglect those issues, either. (We do get an uncomfortable tingle when McCain puts intellectual property issues as a top issue in the innovation category - science benefits most when least encumbered.)

Anyway, energy is one of the topics. Here's the question:

Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

McCain gives a paragraph to nuclear energy:

As President, I will put the country on track to building 45 new reactors by 2030 so that we can meet our growing energy demand and reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases. Nuclear power is a proven, domestic, zero-emission source of energy and it is time to recommit to advancing our use of nuclear energy. The U.S. has not started construction on a new nuclear power plant in over 30 years. Currently, nuclear power provides 20 percent of our overall energy portfolio. Other countries such as China, India and Russia are looking to increase the role of nuclear power in their energy portfolio and the U.S. should not just look to maintain, but increase its own use.

Obama? A bullet point:

A new generation of nuclear electric technologies that address cost, safety, waste disposal, and proliferation risks.

What? You expected something different?

Read the whole thing - both candidates tend to cover all the same bases in much the same way, but as the above example shows, the elements stressed can give a measure of the candidates' enthusiasm. It may feel a little like finding water with a divining stick, but that's politicians for you.

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Here's how Scientists and Engineers for American describe themselves: "Our mission is to facilitate evidence-based decision making at all levels of government. Our programs include both a short-term focus on the 2008 national elections and a long-term focus on building a more engaged and politically active scientific community through SEA Chapters and the Campaign Education and Training program." [Paraphrased just a bit.]

Founded in 2006, the organization finds its roots in a distrust of science as a political tool. Here's a couple of bullet points from their Bill of Rights:

No one should fear reprisals or intimidation because of the results of his or her research.

Scientists, technologists, and engineers conducting research or analysis with public funding shall be free of unreasonable restrictions in discussing and publishing their work, and the results of governmentally-funded research and analysis shall be made open to the public without unreasonable delay.

This seems a reproach of the Bush Administration, but in truth science and government have always been uneasy bedfellows, with differing scales leading from good intention to bad faith. One could say, at least in some areas, that government and science fell out of sync on this scale and in fairly public ways.

On the other hand, this is the scientists' Web site - they get to be as absolutist as they want to here and to try to get the balance where they want it. The government will take care of itself - it supplies a lot of funding, after all, and will turn the money faucets on and off as suits its needs, current ideology and a whole raft of priorities. No one needs to feint toward a posture of superior purity.

4 comments:

Ray Lightning said...

Explaining Obama's bullet point

A new generation of nuclear electric technologies that address cost, safety, waste disposal, and proliferation risks.

How to reduce cost : By mass production of reactors in a robotized assembly unit. Currently nuclear reactors are built like massive infrastructure such as bridges and ports. This has to be replaced by automatic production - such as what is the case for automobiles, aeroplanes, computers etc.. This will slash down costs enormously. But to do this, the nuclear industry has to come up with a standardized design, such as what we have for aeroplanes.

How to address safety : Make the reactors inherently safe instead of engineered safe. Technologies such as pebble-bed reactors are inherently designed so as to overrule any accidental breakdown. We should prefer such technologies over the current designs. Also, we should look at the LFTR model (liquid flouride thorium reactor) which is also inherently safe.

How to dispose waste : Nuclear waste is just more nuclear fuel in hiding. It is a blasphemy to throw it away in dumps and Yucca mountain is a really terrible idea. We should construct breeder reactors which maximize the use of fuel (60 to 100 times more efficient) and the longevity of their waste is much less (300 years instead of 10000 years)

How to address proliferation risks : Nuclear power is a red herring when it comes to nuclear proliferation. But there are still some valid concerns. Particularly, the enrichment of Uranium should be supervised so that no one can enrich
Uranium to extremely high quality for the use in a nuclear bomb, all under the guise of a power plant. A solution lies in preferring reactors from which no theft of fissile material is ever possible, and from which the fissile material is always contaminated with impurities which rule out use in nuclear bombs. LFTR holds significant promise in this aspect.

Another aspect on proliferation is due to nuclear fuel reprocessing, this produces high grade Plutonium. This technology is very risky and also inefficient in the utilization of Uranium. Instead of this, we should prefer breeder reactors which do in-house reprocessing.

Automatic chemical reprocessing such as via liquid flouride salts (of LFTR) is much preferable to external reprocessing. Plutonium will never be produced in a LFTR.

Obama is clearly for a new generation of nuclear power

McCain is for the same old wine.

You guys take your pick.

d. kosloff said...

It is beyond absurd to assert that Senator Obama is the slightest bit interested in ever having a nuclear reactor built in the United States. It is likely that license renewal would be stopped under an Obama administration and that previously granted renewed licenses would be evaluated for withdrawal.

When a politician knowingly includes a red herring (proliferation risks) in his written "support", the writing on the wall is much more clear than the writing in the political statement.

rafterman1 said...

It's beyond absurd to think that Democrats in general would have anything to do with strengthening and expanding nuclear power in the U.S. The offical party platform, found at (http://www.democrats.org/a/party/platform.html) does nothing but mumble some feel-good words about establishing "energy security" and says nothing about new plants.

Besides, why on earth would the Democrats want to alienate their new "base", the MoveOn.org and DailyKos types, by openly endorsing something that the hippies and eco-nuts have been against for decades?

Other than that, I agree with you ;-)

Ray Lightning said...

@d.koslof, @rafterman1 :

It is true that democrats have sheltered the anti-nuke activists for several decades now. But things have been changing, particularly due to the positive attitude to nuclear power in the light of climate change.

Both Obama and Biden have publicly favored nuclear power, even amongst hostile democrat crowd.

Digging up older NEI blogs, Biden is recorded as having said " I'd be spending a whole hell of a lot of money trying to figure out how to reconfigure the spent fuel into reusable fuel. I would not invest in [growing our nuclear power capacity in its current form], but I would invest in sorting out the storage and waste problems." Ergo, my above argument. It will be nice if Obama/Biden elaborate further on their stance towards nuclear power, this will happen during the debates.

When we have a troop of breeder reactors which eat away nuclear waste and produce power at the same time, one significant anti-nuke argument will vanish. There will not be a question of shutting down existing nuke plants or revoking licenses to accepted plants.

It is unlikely that an Obama-Biden administration will approve more 2nd generation nuclear plants, but it will spend significant money on prototyping 4th generation reactors such as PBMR and LFTR. Who knows, we might even see a major construction boom as well before 5 years.

Most importantly, the key enemy to nuclear power is not some eco-nuts or anti-nuke activists, it is coal. It is the open secret and the simple fact. Above all else, it is in the interest of fossil fuel industry to delay nuclear plants.

So, first of all avoid those political parties who rub their shoulders with "clean"-coal types. Both the democrat and republican parties are afflicted by this disease. But I think republicans are more sold out to coal industry (and oil industry) than democrats.