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.
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.
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.
Early 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.