So it looks like President-elect Obama is going to name his energy and environment team next week. Among the purported choices is Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu to lead the Department of Energy. One of the questions on our minds is how will he handle nuclear energy policy.
It is impossible to judge whether he’ll make a good secretary of energy. He certainly has the technical background to know fission from fusion. But knowing the difference between cracking atoms and crashing them does not make a good energy secretary. The job will be to articulate and execute the policy vision set forth by President Obama. It is to be more of a manager and leader than a smarty-pants. After all, the law of comparative advantage says Dr. Chu might be better suited for a lab than the hot seat in the DOE offices.
So where will Dr. Chu come down? We can’t tell. But we won’t hold it against him that he comes from a lab background. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll want DOE to research and develop everything. Surely he’ll want to commercialize things, won’t he? He must know, like all good things, that DOE research programs come to an end,right?
Let’s give him not just the benefit of the doubt, but some priorities that he could start with. (By the way, these recommendations will be part of a more detailed paper we’ll release next week.):
Set an end-game for Nuclear Power 2010 (NP 2010). We are not saying to kill NP2010. The program to help get through the arduous plant permitting and design certification process was needed when it was started. But it’s beginning to drag. Let’s kick it into high gear, get the plants and designs through the bureaucracy by 2010 and call it a victory.
Accelerate Next Generation Nuclear Plant program (NGNP). The Next Generation Nuclear Plant is an important public/private cost-sharing technology development program. This is where the next public-private push should concentrate. The world of high-temperature gas cooled reactors being developed by NGNP are critical to the future of nuclear energy. We need an efficient regulatory process to support this technology’s introduction into the market place—and we need it now.
Stay out of the commercial spent fuel recycling business. The Bush Administration should be lauded for not only bringing nuclear energy back into the energy debate but also for making the role of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel part of that conversation. That said, the Bush plan to construct a national reprocessing facility was not a good idea. Dr. Chu should be thanking his lucky stars that he’s not being handed another bloated DOE construction project. He should ensure that he offers his successor that same dignity by not starting such a project.
Ensure a science-based outcome for Yucca Mountain. President-elect Obama has stated he does not support constructing a spent nuclear fuel repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. He believes that the people of Nevada do not support the project and that its safety has not been scientifically proven. Luckily, deciding such an outcome is neither his nor Dr. Chu’s concern. Instead, they should support the NRC’s efforts to process DOE’s Yucca application and come to its own science-based conclusions.
Transfer responsibility for commercial used fuel management to the private sector. This is the big enchilada, folks. It is not coincidental that the front-end of the fuel cycle and operations are both privately operated and functional. On the other hand, back-end activity (waste management) falls under the purview of the federal government and it is completely dysfunctional. It is time that we change this. On day one, Secretary Chu should announce a major effort to overhaul how the nations manages its spent nuclear fuel.
And for a head start, here is a comprehensive plan on how to do it.