Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Steven Chu and Nuclear Power

President Obama's designee for Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE) is pronuclear energy. He even supports nuclear fuel recycling. This is very good news for America. It is also good news for the world. When asked if nuclear energy should be part of America's energy mix, Mr. Chu stated:

"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."

In an article for the San Francisco Chronicle, Steven Chu wrote:

"Fission energy has significant issues: long-term waste storage and the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons materials. Despite these issues, it needs a second look, especially if radioactive waste can be greatly reduced by recycling and burning down long-lived radioactive products into shorter-lived waste."

He goes into great detail about the oft stated 'problem' of nuclear waste:

"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."
We would suggest to Mr. Chu that the spent fuel should be reprocessed AT Yucca Mountain. [UC Berkeley News, Photo: on his office balcony overlooking the UC Berkeley campus. (BAP photos)]

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