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Legends and Facts: Steven Chu on Nuclear Energy

Steven_Chu_nuclear_energy [Edit: Click here for coverage of Steven Chu's confirmation hearing.]

So how is Steven Chu playing as the purported candidate for Department of Energy secretary? Before we look at the developing narrative, let's remember the lesson of John Ford's movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Here's the question: Did Senator Ransom Stoddard begin his sterling Senatorial career and usher in statehood for Arizona by shooting bad man Liberty Valance? After we learn the truth, a newspaper editor sagely concludes, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." He had in mind the George Washington-cherry tree kind of legend, but it works equally well with, say, the Al Gore-internet kind of legend. Once a legend develops, it can be devilishly hard to shake loose of it. And it can warp the truth rather severely. So let's see what legend is developing around Dr. Chu.

Here's the Wall Street Journal's Keith Johnson buffing a legend that might alarm you a little:

Worried about radioactivity? Coal’s still your bogeyman. Dr. Chu says a typical coal plant emits 100 times more radiation than a nuclear plant, given the flyash emissions of radioactive particles.

That doesn’t mean nuclear power is much better. “The waste and proliferation issues [surrounding nuclear power] still haven’t been completely solved,” he said. A big part of the Department of Energy’s job is to oversee nuclear weapons and waste storage. And the Obama campaign made clear that increased reliance on nuclear power will require finding a “safe” way to dispose of radioactive waste.

We'd say, completely parenthetically, that coal has had an exceptionally bad couple of weeks.

About used nuclear fuel: closing all nuclear plants doesn't forestall having to deal with storage. It's an issue that has to dealt with regardless and without the deep swoons that often accompany the topic.

And one thing Chu doesn't seem to be, it's swoonish. So what about nuclear energy and used fuel? Has Chu addressed these topics at length? In fact, he has, for example in this 2005 interview with UC Berkeley's Bonnie Azab Powell:

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. ... 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.

So that's a pretty good stab at a truth. Absolutely, he says.

While we don't agree with everything Chu says here by a fair margin, he does evince a desire to move theory into practice - a good goal for a government scientist. He also has an theoretician's desire to work with what we know now to get to what we might be able to know given time and research (and, to be crass, money). All good.

liberty-valanceEarly days, of course - remember, Obama hasn't publicly announced Chu; he's still working through his Health and Human Resources picks right now - so a lot of time to see how things go. But remember: when legend becomes, or threatens to become, fact, fight it with truth - or face Liberty Valance.

Steven Chu. We've rarely seen him other than cheerful in photographs. Should help him navigate the riptides of DOE, we think. And Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance. James Stewart played Senator Stoddard. The movie is highly recommended, though the ending might make you throw your popcorn.


Anonymous said…
I for one am pleasantly surprised by the 2005 Chu interview:

I don't agree with Obama and the liberals on hardly anything, but Chu seems so far to be a good common sense pick.

Let's hope that this carries over when Obama choses people to be on the NRC.
Anonymous said…
I would encourage people here to read what Dr. Jerry Pournelle says regarding Obama, Stephen Chu and energy policy:

Dr. Pournelle isn't nasty regarding either one, and he actually has some positive things to say about Chu.

BUT the following two paragraph excerpts I think summarize it all:

"So: I can wish Dr. Chu well when he (very likely) denounces the Bush Administration for its war on science and demands that we invest a lot more in energy research and development. I can hope that he will advocate more fission nuclear power, and make it a lot easier to build those power plants. I can't say I have similar hopes for the rest of his energy/environment team."

"More environmental regulation as we enter a depression is a formula for disaster. The correlation between economic growth and energy cost is high and negative: as energy costs go up, productivity takes a nosedive. From everything I have seen, Obama's energy team is unaware of this, or, more likely, doesn't care: they believe that environment is more important than jobs and the economy."


I am NOT enamored with anything Obama, especially on energy and the environment, and Dr. Pournelle simply confirms my misgivings.
I disagree with Jerry Pournelle on environmental laws. Clean air, clean water, and a clean environment are not some 'liberal' environmental luxuries. They are essential for a prosperous and healthy society.
Anonymous said…

This is the Anon to whose post you responded. You're 100% correct:

"Clean air, clean water, and a clean environment...are essential for a prosperous and healthy society."

But it is man - humanity - who comes first, NOT the environment, not some misbegotten worship of a goddess Earth.

Now nuclear energy, as we all know, is clean and environmentally friendly. Its expansion is essential for "...a prosperous and healthy society." Yet it is exactly nuclear energy which so many so-called environmentalists opposed tooth and nail. Fortunately, there has been a big turn-around in some (but not all) environmental groups.

Humanity was given stewardship over creation, and we, being humans, ought to exercise our stewardship of nature with the utmost caution and respect for all the beauty and goodness with which our Creator endowed this Earth. But in the end, man - humanity - is to be chosen over some false notion of "environmental justice", the myth of a goddess Gaia.

Thus, I for one am grateful that Stephen Chu does not oppose - and may even support - nuclear energy.
James Lovelock, the man who conceived the Gaia Hypothesis, is one of the strongest proponents of nuclear energy.

Environmentalism has to be based on scientific reality. Unfortunately, both the left and the right tend to look at energy and the environment as some sort of political issue.

I'm a strong proponent of nuclear energy because, IMO, it clearly has the least negative environmental impact on our planet.

Anonymous said…

We each come from very different points of view, but at least we can agree that nuclear energy is essential to the survival of technological human civilization and to the preservation of the environment.

I find Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis interesting. There is some truth to the idea that Earth as a biosphere would react to humanity's pollution as a living body would react to the toxins given off by the actions of an invading virus or bacterium. But as I recall, Lovelock does not elevate Gaia to goddess level. Unless I am mistaken, he seems to take your point of view:

"Environmentalism has to be based on scientific reality."

And for that I am grateful. We are stewards of Creation and we ought to act as such. That means (I am sure you will agree) using the resources we have been given wisely and that includes the abundance of thorium (hooray for Kirk Sorensen) and uranium with which the Creator has endowed Earth's crust. I have heard some claim that there's enough energy available to fuel perhaps up to 9 billion people at a standard of living equal the best in America for tens of thousands of years.


"God looked at everything he had made, and he found it very good. Evening came, and morning followed--the sixth day."

Sadly, we humans tend to mess things up with vices such as greed and irresponsibility.
Bill said…
Did you catch the press conference, making the official announcements of Chu et al.? What word didn't you hear?
Anonymous said…
When last spotted Mr Chu was sitting in a tree in Berkeley, CA as part of an environmental protest.
Anonymous said…

Based on Bill's comment as well as Just A Grunt's observation, I remain pessimistic about the Obama Administration's support for nuclear enegry. McCain would have been much more pro-active (with his statement about building 40 new nukes right away, if I recall correctly).

BUT, I still don't have firm reason to disapprove of Chu at this time when it comes to nuclear energy. I just think, however, that we will see much of the same apathy towards nuclear that the Clinton Administration had. Indeed, under George Bush we have GNEP, a slew of requests for COLs and one of TVA's mothballed reactors was activated and came on-line. I see the current Administration as bullish on nuclear power and the incoming one ambivalent at best. But who knows - maybe I will be happily proven wrong? That would be great, because do any of us want Obama to fail?
Anonymous said…
Before you swallow the Nuclear Industries lies that nuclear power is clean... Have you done research on how much uranium gets laid on the ground during the prospecting phase? (In our neighborhood--it is up to 7 lbs.) Have you found out that the entire area is dewatered within a 2 mile radius of a uranium mine? Check out the harm done by the Superfund site caused by Cotter Uranium Mill, in Canon City, Colorado. Do some research on the cost of clean ups; for instance, Paducah-the enrichment facility has cost us taxpayers $19Billion, and a new nuclear power plant is expected to cost $11 Billion. So, when you decide to dredge uranium (with a half-life of 4.5 Billion years) up out of a prospecting hole... know what you are asking for. Know that you are asking to exchange an industry based on a depleting commodity--oil, for another industry based on a depleting commodity--uranium. And, above all, know that it is a Soviet-style industry that is TOTALLY subsidized by the taxpayers.
Finrod said…
"So, when you decide to dredge uranium (with a half-life of 4.5 Billion years) up out of a prospecting hole... know what you are asking for."

4.5 billion years, eh? That's absolutely shocking. It just gets worse though. Most of the isotopes we deal with have infinite half-lives! I think I'll go curl up and shiver in the corner now.

Natural uranium is only very mildly radioactive, quite safe to hold in your hand. It is common throughout the earth's crust, the concentration rarely dropping below 2ppm. You probably have several grams at least in the top metre of soil in your back yard.

The civilian nuclear power industry in the US is not heavily subsidised. Quite the contrary, it pays millions in tax to your government each year (far more than it's ever recieved).

What do you mean by 'dewatered'? I haven't come across that term before.

Honestly, anon, you post an ignorant comment like that on a site packed with nuclear industry professionals and expect to be taken seriously... sounds like you've been getting your information from Harvey Wasserman. I encourage you to try getting some information from more credible sources.
Anonymous said…
There is a marvelous new book The Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy by Gwyneth Cravens a novelist who had a long history as an active opponent to Nuclear Power until she met Rip Anderson a scientist and an expert in risk analysis and nuclear power. His patient step-by-step explanation of the truth about nuclear power overcoming every objection became the basis for the book. It is a must read. For example you will learn that Coal fired power plants release significant amounts of radioactivity to the environment while nuclear plants do not. The problem of effective waste disposal has been solved. There is a functioning nuclear waste disposal facility in New Mexico. Electric cars coupled with nuclear energy and other renewables could provide the path to saving our economy, environment and greatly reduce the political instability and vulnerability resulting on our dependence on foreign energy sources from fossil fuels.
Anonymous said…
As a scientist, I would also endorse the Gwyneth Cravens book, "Power to Save the World"

Additionally, I am ASTONISHED at the abject IGNORANCE and STUPIDITY with respect to Uranium. Poster "Finrod" is absolutely correct - an "infinitely long" half-life nuclide would be stable.

The longer the half-life the LESS radioactive a nuclide is. I don't know how the previous poster that is concerned about the 4.5 Billion year half-life ever made it out of high school with such a defective understanding of science.

Poster "Finrod" is also correct in blasting the popular myth that nuclear power in the USA is heavily "subsidized". The anti-nukes have been telling that lie for decades.

I applaud President-Elect Obama for his choice of Dr Steven Chu.

Dr. Chu's signature can be seen on the following document from the Directors of the national laboratories:
dave said…
I'm a Dem, and nuclear's basically been the only thing that I've been concerned with Obama about. Though I don't work in the industry, or know anyone who does - but I follow it - and I've come to my own conclusion that nuclear is the only real way to deal with baseload generation in a carbon free society. The alternatives are:
a. going back to the trees (not happening)
b. global meltdown (1 - 3 bn die)

The constant hawing and hedging that seems to come from certain areas of my party about nuclear power has made me very anxious about whether Obama was going to pick somebody who was going to be able to make the correct choices - e.g. the nuclear option - as to getting to zero carbon and energy sustainability.

Now that I've learned more about Mr. Chu, this doesn't seem to be much of an issue at all. Assuming that Chu can put his team together the way that he wants, I think that the Obama Administration will have a policy of increasing, rather than going status quo with the supply of nuclear power.

This is a Good Thing, especially if we can get development funding going for the GenIV concepts, new small nuclear concepts (Hyperion, 4S, and others), and, ultimately, the IFR.

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