New Energy Secretary May Be Overconfident

 By Marlene Lang 


We have a new secretary of energy; get out of the way. He wants to do in four weeks what the Bush administration did not do in almost four years; get the money out there for developing renewable and more efficient energy. 

An actual scientist will be running the energy department show, rather than a military or energy industry head. Steven Chu garnered a Nobel Prize in physics in 1997.


Chu's all about developing better batteries for our hybrid vehicles, practical biofuels and "clean" ways to use coal and recycle used fuel from nuclear power plants. And he's actually in a panic about global warming. He told California farmers last week that their livelihood is in grave danger if something is not done, because the snow on the mountains that waters their farms will be no more. 

You'd have to call him an alarmist, if it weren't for the way he EXPLAINS precisely how this sort of catastrophe is likely to take place. 

It's a mega job, but Chu outlined his plan to rip through the red tape of the DOE application process and get the money out there to the industry experts who can make it happen. 

He's saying half of the energy department budget of nearly $40 billion will go to new energy development, the checks all cut in the next six months to a year. 

Chu is a fascinating fellow; a former Stanford professor, a researcher and an administrator with genuine hope that science may solve the world's energy crisis. He said it the single largest challenge scientists face today. 

It is all good news, with a single exception: Chu "absolutely" advocates further development of fission-based nuclear power plants, explaining that the "waste" problem can become manageable if we recycle the used, radioactive fuel. He admits that the present situation is a "problem." 

Chu is a very smart man and he is correct; there is a problem. In a 2005 interview, when he served as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, he said, "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." 

Yes, and our new administration is unlikely to fund the further development of the Yucca Mountain repository as the permanent waste burial site for our "problem." 

What to do? Recycle that glowing garbage, says Chu. 

Now, recycling this waste is a dandy idea; its radioactive span is cut from hundreds of thousands of years to only a thousand years, Chu explained. Do you feel safe yet? 

Present legislation requires that this spent fuel, once permanently buried, must be "safe" for 10,000 years. Chu admitted that the present designs for the casings that contain the waste will likely fail after 5,000 years. And that's a highly educated guess, of course.

So, if we can build new plants that recycle the used fuel, that fuel may have a "safe" resting place for a long enough time to keep it from poisoning and/or mutating the cell function of any neighbors or the contaminating the water supply of future Earth inhabitants. 

Still, there remains the problem of the existing plants and their existing radioactive waste as well as the lovely waste from our nuclear weapons and such – a heap of stuff that presently won't fit in Yucca Mountain, if a dump is built there. 

And did I mention that the dump is not cheap, where ever it may eventually be built? 

On August 5,  2008, the DOE acknowledged that the cost to build, operate and decommission Yucca Mountain has increased 67 percent  since 2001. The updated cost estimate, in 2007, was $96.2 billion. 

I am pleased with Secretary Chu as a pick for the position and with the ambition he shows to face what is truly an urgent situation. But as the $25 billion federally guaranteed loans are doled out, we need to ask again why we want to license growth in an energy industry that creates a problem it has not yet solved. Oh, yes. We need cheap power. 

Chu told media last week, "I feel very strongly what the American family does not want is to pay an increasing fraction of their budget on energy costs." Well, of course not. 

Yet, as forward thinking as he is, he eChues the tune of the nuclear power industry. Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman Steve Kraft, last April, told a group of nuclear watchdogs and Nevada folks who will be affected directly by Yucca Mountain, that nuclear energy needed to grow because, "The American lifestyle is non-negotiable." 

I was in the room and heard,  with my own stunned ears, Mr. Kraft say this. 

I was surprised no food items were propelled at him by those representing local populations with high instances of cancers which they attribute to their proximity to the Nevada Test Site. 

Chu also eChued a re-framed version of the long-existing policy of "waste confidence," a euphemism that has come to mean something like this: We are confident we will find a solution for the radioactive waste left behind by nuclear power plants, so we will continue to create the power and generate the waste until we find that solution." 

Yet, in 1977, two years before the infamous core meltdown at the Three Mile Island power plant, the NRC stated it would not continue to license reactors if it did not have reasonable confidence that waste can and will in due course be disposed of safely. 

That was more than 30 years ago. Due course? 

Chu's confidence is science may be reasonable, but the fact remains, after more than three decades, there is still no permanent solution to this grave problem. Chu was quoted last week, saying, "The recycling issue is something we don't need a solution for today, or even 10 years from today." Chu said, "It's like coal – one doesn't have a hard moratorium on that while we search for ways to capture carbon safely." While the solution is in the works, this deadly waste is accumulating, stored at a nuclear power plant near you, or another convenient, above-ground location. 

Our new energy secretary is rightly urgent about getting the money out there now for new energy development, but he must be equally diligent about insuring we develop energy responsibly and safely for ourselves and for future generations. 


This column is posted with permission from the SouthtownStar, Tinley Park, Ill., part of the Sun-Times News Group. 


Marlene Lang is a freelance columnist and editor.