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More nukes look likely

PULLMAN -- President-elect Obama’s pick for Secretary of Energy is a physicist with a Nobel Prize.

Dr. Steven Chu also has a long record of advocating more nuclear power, as well as increasing our use of renewable energy such as next-generation solar.

In short, Chu looks likely to move our nation a step away from heavy reliance on fossil fuels and toward a more high-tech energy future.

Chu’s nuclear commitment will likely be fodder for glow-in-the-dark jokes from Leno and Letterman. But his ideas challenge all of us to seriously look again at our energy priorities.

Today, we get about 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear reactors, making them a significant slice of the national energy pie. But some citizens strongly fear high-tech nuclear plants. Others worry about nuclear waste and note that our government has not yet provided a full disposal path for spent nuclear fuel.

On the other hand, some citizens see nukes as an energy source that’s based on American resources. And nuclear plants don’t contribute to carbon dioxide levels, a clear positive for climate concerns.

Many scientists see great potential for reducing the hazardous waste from nuclear power plants by recycling the fuel rods that lie at the heart of reactors. The stumbling block for such recycling in this country has not been a technical one, but a political issue -- which brings us back to the new administration.

Obama’s pick for Energy Secretary is the director of the prestigious Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Dr. Chu has long spoken in favor of increasing the number of nuclear power plants and improving what we do within those plants to radically decrease nuclear waste.

Just for the record, I’m a geologist who wears a Stetson and drives an aging pickup truck. Because I’m such a red-blooded American, I feel free to say we might possibly learn something from the example of the French, at least when it comes to energy.

France gets a whopping 88 percent of its electrical power from nukes. With limited fossil fuels given to them by Mother Nature, the French long ago made the decision to embrace nuclear power. And embrace it they have: many French citizens line up to tour nuclear plants on their summer vacations!

With 59 nuclear plants in operation, France chose not to store immense volumes of waste deep underground, as the American government proposes to do at Yucca Mountain. Instead, the French recycle old fuel rods to generate still more power and reduce their waste pile. The residual amount of radioactive material is vastly reduced, and is much easier to store.

Recycling was an approach the Carter administration nixed for America in the 1970s, citing security concerns. But the French have had no security issues with their recycling program. That’s why I expect Dr. Chu will advocate both recycling and new nuclear power plants after he’s confirmed as Energy Secretary.

Congress no doubt will consider energy from several vantage points, weighing our national needs and the diverse opinions of so many citizens.

One thing is sure -- part of any broad American effort to build recycling facilities and construct next-generation nukes would depend on recreating the human infrastructure we’ve lost since the 1970s. In other words, if we choose to keep our cowboy hats firmly on our heads (as I’m surely going to do), but also make use of more nuclear power, we’ve got to support education in nuclear science and engineering.

A friend, Dr. Donald Wall of Washington State University, works each day in exactly that field, educating the next generation in everything from running the nuclear reactor we have on campus for research purposes to investigating new methods of using radioactive materials to benefit humanity.

“Americans are very creative and industrious people, and I know we have the talent to safely expand the nuclear energy industry,” Wall said to me this week. “I’m dedicated to this field because it holds incredible promise. We’re excited to start working with the new Secretary of Energy.”

Leno and Letterman will write more jokes about glowing in the dark with Homer Simpson. But scientists such as Chu and Wall are in earnest about expanding the nuclear power industry in the U.S.

* E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Questions about science or energy for future Rock Docs can be sent to epeters@wsu.edu. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.

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