Common sense prevails until he broadly endorses MIT’s nuclear study

John Holdren at MIT Oct 2010John Holdren, President Obama’s Science Advisor, returned to MIT, his alma mater (‘65), Oct 27 to deliver a signature speech (slides) on energy R&D, climate change, and energy policy. (Hat tip to Ken Berard at NEI for the slides)

If you want to know what energy policy makers are talking about in Washington, DC, it pays to follow what Holdren says.

[Presidential science adviser John Holdren ’65 SM ’66 delivers the David J. Rose Lecture in Nuclear Technology at MIT Oct 27, 2010. Photo: Stuart Darsch, MIT]

His message is that the two toughest challenges the nation faces in terms of energy are meeting our transportation needs with less oil, and meeting economic aspirations while producing less climate-altering carbon-dioxide emissions.

Holdren is a realist. He told his audience there are no easy answers and no silver bullets for achieving solutions to the challenges of climate change, he said:

All of the energy alternatives to fossil fuels have “liabilities and limitations” of their own. For example, industrial-scale biofuels production can take land away from food production; hydropower and wind are limited by the availability of suitable locations; solar energy is costly and intermittent; nuclear plants are costly to build and lack an accepted solution for waste disposal; and nuclear fusion doesn’t work yet.

Some change on nuclear energy

With regard to nuclear energy, he’s doing better than his going in position at the start of the Obama administration. He still has his eye on nonproliferation issues as a key barrier to global deployment of nuclear energy.

Despite the Obama administration’s support for an international fuel bank, Holdren bypassed the topic in his speech. One reason may be the lukewarm reception DOE Energy Secretary Steven Chu received last month to his offer to the IAEA of a $50 million pledge to start one.

[See my blog post at ANS Nuclear CafeWill Nuclear Fuel Bank Open for Business?” 10/06/10]

According to an MIT published summary of Holdren’s talk (video below), he said:

"Nuclear power, while not capable of making a major dent in energy production in the near term, has a potentially significant role to play, and could become a major factor in the longer term.”

That’s good, but it doesn’t get better. He said he agrees fully with the conclusions of the recently released MIT study on the future of the nuclear-fuel cycle, calling for economic support of the first several new nuclear plants in this country, as well as for increased research on potential new fuel-cycle technologies for the longer run and for long-term spent fuel storage options."

Holdren needs to take a second look at reprocessing

The problem for Washington policy makers who are not experts on energy issues is that Holdren is part of the nation’s elite when it comes to setting the energy policy agenda. Being the President’s Science Advisor is a “bully pulpit.” Holdren used it this week to broadly endorse the MIT study. This isn’t good when it comes to needs for common sense on fuel reprocessing.

Holdren needs to take a second look at the issue. The MIT study is flawed in several ways.

sandboxFirst, it calls for creation of a huge nuclear energy R&D program, but the objectives are written broadly so it looks more like a sandbox and less likely to produce real progress.

Second, it is timid in its vision about the future of nuclear spent fuel reprocessing. It calls for more study instead of real policy progress.

Third, it is obsessive in its focus on nonproliferation as a justification to shut down new nuclear energy developments rather than developing workable mechanisms like fuel banks.

Ernest Moniz, a member of the MIT panel, was an Undersecretary at the Department of Energy during the Clinton administration. Then and now his primary concern is getting more of the total inventory of plutonium out of circulation. His overarching focus on nonproliferation drives an almost unreasonable approach to options to manufacture MOX fuel and develop fast reactors. The reason, he says, is that these methods do nothing to reduce total plutonium in the fuel cycle.

Well, once you decide that’s all you’re going to do, the rest become easy. In fact, the MOX fuel plant being built in South Carolina will take 34 tons of plutonium out of circulation and put it to good use in conventional LWRs. Worldwide, almost three dozen reactors burn MOX fuel.

Areva has a different idea

spent fuelMeanwhile, David Jones, Vice President of Used Fuel Management at Areva, argues that recycling spent nuclear fuel is a proven solution that is cost competitive and reduces proliferation concerns.

And Stephen Turner, an expert on spent nuclear fuel, told this blog Sept 21 that U.S. private industry will not wait for the U.S. government to make up its mind. Speaking at the annual meeting of the National Fabrication Consortium held in Cleveland, he said:

“These firms have developed the business case for spent fuel reprocessing. They will pull the pin when the market is ready.”

Confirming Turner’s view, Areva’s Jones told this blog two months ago the firm wants to build an 800 ton/year plant in the U.S. as a commercial enterprise.

Unfortunately, Holdren agrees with Moniz arguing that a rapid expansion of nuclear reactors, and fuel reprocessing, is too risky because it would create new opportunities to divert fissile materials to make bombs.

The rest of the world is going to develop nuclear reactors. Either the U.S. re-engages with the global industry, or no one will take it seriously when it comes to nonproliferation issues.

As noted earlier, Holdren is a realist. If he could get out of the government corridors, and into the business world, he might find some common ground.

Maybe Holdren should hop the Metro Red Line (map) and take a trip to Bethesda to have coffee with Jacques Besnainou at Areva’s office in Bethesda? It’s just coffee, and the discussion might open his eyes to alternatives to the MIT report. Could that happen? I don’t know, but it’s worth a shot.

MIT Video of John Holdren’s MIT talk 10/27/10

MIT Tech TV

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