Steven Chu Addresses the National Labs

By John Conway | January 22, 2009 2:20 pm

The new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, addressed the national labs in an all-hands video transmission today. I was not there, but my colleague and friend Rob Roser at Fermilab was there, and sent me a very nice bulleted summary. So, you are getting this second hand, and people who were there can add nuances in the comments, but here goes:

  • Energy is the defining issue of our time.
  • Addressing the environment is the major reason Chu took on this job.
  • These problems provide a tremendous opportunity for the DOE, but it comes with a burden: we can not fail.
  • The DOE is the principal supporter of physical sciences in the US, and the physical sciences are the conernstone of prosperity for the US future.
  • This was part of the message of the “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report.
  • The DOE should endeavor to replace the great industrial labs that no longer exist as they once did.
  • The DOE will be the “go to” organization for a multitude of key problems — will depend on all labs to help.
  • The DOE can quite literally “save the world” by developing a sound energy policy going forward, and invent new science that will provide new technologies.
  • Our current use of energy not sustainable — have to move forward.
  • We are facing something society has never been asked to do before: to deal with ominous problems with climate change. If half of the things climate science tells us are half true, we have a huge problem on our hands and the DOE has to work to provide those solutions.
  • The Obama administration is creating a new Energy and Climate Change Council which will serve as a coordinating body including all stake holders in this arena. DOE is first and formost in this but Interior, Agriculture, Treasury and Defense etc. all play a role.
  • The DOE is the science and technology “arm of energy”.
  • There is a core of truly oustanding scientists at the national labs, and these labs have trained many successful scientists.
  • The national labs are “crown jewels that the US doesn’t want to lose”.
  • Restimulation of the economy is #1 on the priority list. DOE will get considerable funds in the stimulus package, not just to get the economy going but to provide a long term path for the US.
  • We can’t be completely overwhelmed by the short term economic woes; we need to still find a path to solve our long term problems. The DOE has to invent transformative technologies that will allow us to get to the next level of energy independence.
  • Chu sees a lot of young and middle age scientists shifting careers to deal with energy, and the DOE is optimistic to capture the best and brightest to work on these issues.

I am truly awed by the vision presented by Chu here, and so hopeful that we can get our country back on a path to long term prosperity by supporting research in the physical sciences. At least half of our present economy relies on the knowledge gained in the 20th century about our physical world…one can only imagine the revolutions to come.

ADVERTISEMENT
  • http://www.scienceloaf.com Headloafer

    This is such a relief to read; it is refreshing and overwhelming to think that the government at the administration level is finally moving away from the “let’s put all our resources towards advancing military R&D” to “let’s put a huge amount of resources towards advancing the science that will make our country and planet a cleaner, safer place.” It is an exciting time to be a scientist. It is an exciting time to be an American.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Something tells me we won’t need to worry about low-level staffers deciding that the Big Bang is just a theory.

  • Christian

    Never before has a deceleration of energy policy made me shed a tear. I wish Steven Chu and the DOE all the best. It is an exciting time to be an American.

  • Julianne

    Just from a training perspective, I wonder how one prepares oneself to participate in the “science of energy”. I can see an obvious role for engineering, but it’s less obvious to me where science as a field connects. Material science and chemistry seem likely, and perhaps bio-organisms. Certainly climate modeling, to understand how the system responds to different situations. Are there subfields of physics that seem like promising directions, beyond plasma physics (i.e. fusion)?

  • Pingback: Steven Chu « SEnnovation()

  • Brian

    Very exciting, very inspiring.

  • MTS

    What a relief. Finally we have a visionary leader. One of the first things we need to do is to figure out how to re-educate our mid-level managers at the national labs to understand the nature of the climate change threat. We need to start by promoting more scientists and fewer engineers. I think nearly all the scientists who are members of the technical staff understand the science. There are still a lot of engineers, technicians, and bean-counter types who are scientifically illiterate and think that climate change is a hoax. Can we restore science to its rightful place in the national labs, please?

  • Ben Button

    “one can only imagine the revolutions to come. ”

    Sadly, this is true. One can *only* imagine them.

    Meanwhile, back in the real world, does Chu have a crash program for building nuclear plants, so that the US can dream of reaching, say, the present French level of energy independence 20 years from now?

  • Pingback: Town Meeting and other topics…. « blueollie()

  • Brian

    @ Ben

    There is more to this than merely building more of a particular type of facility with current technology, altough that may play a useful role. The more exciting part is the use of some of our best and most innovative scientists to develop new ideas and methods. Hopefully, they can find better ways to meet our enery needs, ways that can be utilized not only by the United States but by the rest of the world also.

    A few years ago, as I regaled a friend of mine about the latest research on neutrinos, she asked me why we didn’t use our smartest people to do something help solve our most pressing ecological problems. I still love those cute little neutrinos, but I can’t help thinking that my friend also had a good point. Incidentally, independence is not our only energy goal; we need to consider the environment also.

  • Pingback: The Physical Sciences are the Cornerstone of Prosperity for the US Future | TNTlog()

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    Interesting to read that Steve Chu regards the loss of the industrial labs as a big deal. If by that
    he meant places like Bell Labs, then I would certainly agree. I wonder if that implies either more or less “basic” research, as opposed to more directly applied research.

  • Ex-physicist

    So how are theorists, high energy physicists and astronomers going to feel when their research dollars are taken away and given to researchers who are better placed to save the world? We need a Manhattan project for clean energy technologies.

  • Radha

    Wow. Just wow. Hopefully, I will get to be one of these “young scientists shifting careers to deal with energy” — and move away from the defense industry.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I keep hearing and reading statements to the effect of “Industry has abandoned research”. Maybe this is true for questions of fundamental physics, but I would strongly beg to differ for just about any other field. Does it all have to be Nobel-winning stuff to matter? Does vetting embryonic concepts developed in the academy not count for anything? Does the fact that gazillions of academic investigators hold patents and frequently spin their academic labs off into full-blown private companies (often using their old lab space and post-docs at the U during the transition) not indicate something about the relationship between academic and industrial applied, and often pure, science? I.e., for better or worse, there’s not much difference anymore. In fact, they can be the same thing, strange as it sounds. One can legitimately debate the merits of this arrangement (and I would, despite my role in it, agree the blurring of boundaries leaves us with not enough independent scrutiny of industry claims), but to characterize the whole of US “science” as something that’s been shed from the corporate world strikes me as wildly inaccurate. Unless, again, “science” only means one, very narrow, thing.

  • Matt

    What a week. The inauguration. Seeing gitmo prosecutions put on hold. And now this. Wish I could archive the memory of these days.

  • Steven

    Let’s get it rolling. Hand down a mandate to the DOE labs that 10% of all
    efforts be re-directed toward energy and environmental issues starting immediately. Staff and program money are re-directed accordingly. Next year we go to 20%.

  • Chris

    I work at one of the national labs, and am trying to switch my career from high-energy physics to surface science and catalysts to help work on the energy problem. Chu is right on. I don’t see enough movement at the national labs in this direction. I only know of a group of about 12 people at our lab (which has about 1500 people) who work on these issues, which is much too small, in my opinion. Hopefully Chu will be able to change this. A manhattan-project-style might be the right approach.

  • John

    Steven, Steven, Steven…you just don’t get it, do you, about basic, curiosity-driven research? So many discoveries in physics are serendipitous, and the technological spinoffs are unforeseen. No one was trying to invent a DVD when inventing the laser. No one was trying to invent the internet when fiddling with transistors. When nuclear spin resonances were being studied, who foresaw the medical imaging possibilities? Need I go on? “Redirecting” is the wrong approach. We need a general expansion of support for *all* research in the physical sciences, including cosmology, astronomy, astrophysics, particle physics, condensed matter physics, nuclear physics, atomic and molecular physics, physical chemistry, material sciences, advanced computing and all fields of engineering. It is impossible to predict where the breakthroughs will happen, and our best approach is to spread the bets evenly.

  • Pingback: symmetry breaking » Blog Archive » Energy Secretary Steven Chu looks to labs for DOE’s future()

  • Julianne

    Well, as an astronomer, I am willing to bet money that there will not be a single energy-related advance to come out of my field, with the very unlikely exception of work on the solar system. I accept that my field is funded largely on the basis of astronomy being just really, really cool.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I agree with John wholeheartedly, but would add that, just as sometimes basic research stumbles upon very practical things, sometimes applied research winds up uncovering things no one knew before. So there’s nothing wrong, I think, with the occasional “Manhattan Project”-style concentration of resources to meet a great and pressing need. Of course, over the long term, a well-funded curiosity-driven basic research community is absolutely essential, and the successes of large, targeted efforts should not imply the focus should shift to that approach over the basic one. Hedging bets by diversification is definitely the way to go.

  • Mark

    Julianne,
    What about the technology that is developed for astronomy? Adaptive optics? Interferometry? Advances in focusing or concentrating photons seems important to me! Also, hasn”t a lot of the theoretical understanding of fusion come from astrophysicists? I think it’s important to have a lot of smart people together working on different things, so that ideas and technologies related to one field quickly diffuse to others. That’s why national labs really are the “crown jewels”.
    Mark

  • Julianne

    Mark — I suspect that the military would have (or has) developed a lot of the relevant technology over on the dark side. Looking down through a turbulent atmosphere is a similar problem to looking up through one. I agree that astronomy is a driver for interesting technology, but that’s different than the _subject_ you’re studying having applications itself (NMR, lasers, etc).

    I think one of the most useful features of astronomy is that it’s a “gateway drug” for science. We get students who go through intro astro classes, figure out that it’s nifty, and wind up getting dual astronomy+physics degrees. Voila! Instant physics major!

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    I wonder if we will see DOE sponsoring 2 or 3 year fellowships on energy related science to scientists in other areas who want to get into the field. Has anyone heard anything about this ?

  • Mark

    Yeah. A lot of the early recruits to LANL were astrophysicists. Since they understood how stars worked, they were some of the best people to figure out how to design a “smaller, artificial star”.

  • Joe

    Not to be a naysayer, but I wonder how much of Chu’s vision can really be accomplished. DOE bureaucracy, especially at Headquarters, is notoriously doltish and obstructionist. Unless heads roll, the vision will degenerate into the usual declarations of victory, while accomplishing very little, I predict.

  • Brian

    Really, the total amount spent on basic research is already rather small. I foresee funding more applied research without cutting any funds for the basic stuff.

  • Neal J. King

    Joe,

    Steve Chu seems to have the reputation of being a pretty hard-driven, results-oriented guy.

    Since he’s in touch with the technical aspects of this, he probably won’t put up with a lot of stone-walling and non-performance.

    In addition, I think it could be great if he also plays a “C. Everett Koop” role for global warming. Unlike most scientists, he might actually be a half-decent debater. As you may have noticed, the American public is still confused about whether the main cause of temperature increase is human or natural.

  • MTS

    I hope that Prof. Chu encourages lab scientists to get more involved in educating the public about the science of climate change. I think there is a lot of passion within the labs for this topic, and frustration that the media give so much attention to discredited “contrarian” opinions. Many lab scientists have been afraid to speak out for fear of being accused of political activism and raked through the coals like James Hansen and Michael Mann. This needs to change.

  • Haelfix

    It all sounds well and good, but theres nothing particularly specific here to actually debate and so I don’t see anything other than a fluff piece that could have been written at any time in the last 30 years. So where are the tradeoffs?

    Are you going to focus on say wind/solar vs geothermal and nuclear?
    Energy highway in the works?
    Which national labs do you want to recreate, focusing on what?
    Are funds going to be allocated to specific proposals or more open ended (eg get the money to smart people and let them make something off it)? If so whats the percentage breakdown.
    What about restructuring the horrible bureaucratic mess that is the grant application process and/or firing half the staff for gross incompetence and redundancy.

  • http://radical-moderation.blogspot.com/ TheRadicalModerate

    We seem to see the outlines of where Obama and, I suspect, Chu, want to go with DOE priorities:

    1) Lots of emphasis on conservation, especially building conservation.
    2) Lots of emphasis on improving transportation efficiency (i.e. learning how to make high-energy-density batteries real cheap).
    3) Investing in solving the technical problems associated with deploying solar, wind, or ethanol at high scale.

    All of these are lovely, but we need to face two uncomfortable problems. First, energy conservation can move the demand vs. time curve maybe ten years to the right, and then you’re back where you started. (Well, OK, maybe the slope is a bit flatter after that.) This is all wonderful stuff and I completely support making it a priority.

    But then we come to the second problem: the three anointed primary generation technologies all have unsolved technical problems that currently prevent their deployment. Even if the manufacturing price of PV solar drops by a factor of ten, the price of deploying it on rooftops isn’t likely to drop very much, so scalability is a problem, and so is the problem of energy storage for base load production when the sun isn’t shining. Wind has better scalability but has distribution problems as well as the same problem with base load generation. And ethanol is just a complete crapshoot. Even if you get the chemistry right, you still have to deal with the issues surrounding the removal of gigatonnes of biomass from the environment, to say nothing of their transportation to be processed.

    We ought to to work really hard at solving these technical problems. But we also need to realize that there is a finite possibility that some of the problems can’t be solved. It happens–lots of promising technologies hit some stupid little roadblock that renders them nonviable. I suspect that the odds of an unsolvable problem popping up with one of these three technologies is fairly low, say, less than 25%, but that’s a bit of a gamble when you’re talking about the survival of an industrial civilization.

    Meanwhile, we have a non-carbon, for all practical purposes renewable, energy technology that we can deploy at scale today with no technical problems, which costs no more than two times what fossil fuel costs. That technology, of course, is nuclear.

    And yet Obama and his nascent DOE refuse to talk about it. Sure, they’ll mumble something about all options being on the table, but then they’ll immediately qualify it by mentioning the insurmountable problems surround waste disposal and proliferation security. Both of these objections are nonsense. Neither is a technology problem. Both are political problems, requiring nothing more than political will to solve. And yet the Administration appears to be reluctant to do anything that would promote nuclear power.

    Specifically, they’re not looking at either commissioning Yucca Mountain or providing an alternative to it. They’re not even considering fuel reprocessing technology. They’re not spending any time thinking about how to make safety simply a non-issue (although technologies like pebble-bed reactors would do so). They’re not looking at streamlining the licensing process. (NB: “Streamlining” is not a code word for compromising safety. It’s a code word for no longer actively discouraging the deployment of new nuke plants.) They’re not looking at reducing the insurance costs to nuclear producers through government underwriting.

    I’m not wedded to the idea of nuclear power if something better comes along. But neither am I wedded to the idea of solar, wind, or ethanol at the expense of nuclear power for reasons that appear to have more to do with political correctness than they do with technology or economics.

    Obama has assumed a big responsibility by putting so much emphasis on solving the energy problem, and he’s assumed even more responsibility by coupling its solution to a solution for climate change at the same time. That’s the right thing to do and I’m glad he’s acted like a serious grownup. But serious grownups don’t rule out technologies because they’re not very popular with certain segments of their electoral base, especially when those technologies are, at the very least, a completely reliable backstop to the problem should all of the other technologies go sideways. Serious grownups don’t gamble with the future when they don’t have to. Something’s a bit off here. I hope Chu will point this out.

  • Neal J. King

    Haelfix,

    The unfortunate point is that only half or fewer of the U.S. population are actually of the opinion that global warming is actually due to human activities (as opposed to natural variation), or is even actually happening. As long as that is the case, it will be hard to be successful in effecting a program to correct these trends, if there is any cost involved.

    With respect to debate: There are a few Ph.D’d skeptics who promote theories that have mostly been taken from the scrapheap of scientific history about the nature of global warming. Several of them are significantly better at debate than your typical climatologist, and they love to be vocal. Gore is pretty vocal too, but he cannot reliably out-think them: He doesn’t have the full technical training. So it would be useful to have a champion whose credentials cannot be dismissed or counter-balanced: Think about how long the tobacco companies were able to give people a reason not to take smoking seriously, and think about how much more complicated it is to understand radiative transfer theory than damage from smoke. A recent Nobel Prize in Physics is pretty hard to out-weigh.

  • Neal J. King

    TheRadicalModerate,

    I’m not opposed to nuclear power in principle; but some of those nuclear wastes need to be isolated from contact with humans for hundreds of thousands of years. All human written history (estimated generously) does not span more than 5,000 years (and I’m including characters on Chinese kettles). Over that period of time, we cannot count on continuity of civilization, culture, language, etc., etc.

    So how do we protect future generations against exposure to radwastes over that span of time?

  • Anonymous

    Neal, this is a false dilemma when you have the option of destroying the radwastes, in a closed fuel cycle with fast breeders. Look up the Integral Fast Reactor scheme: the longer-lived transuranic waste is destroyed, leaving fission products which decay to natural levels within ~200 years.

  • http://radical-moderation.blogspot.com/ TheRadicalModerate

    Neal–

    Anon has presented you with the Integral Fast Reactor as one option. The French, I believe, recover uranium and plutonium through a PUREX process, which leaves a much smaller amount of extremely high level waste. Don’t want to reprocess? Then there are plenty of techniques, like vitrification, that can stabilize high-level waste for very long periods of time. Perhaps not for a million years, but a pretty long time. And, if we survive as a civilized species, I’m sure that future generations will be somewhat less recto-cranially inverted than we are currently, and they’ll want to dig up all this “waste” and put it to good use. Lots of things you can do with radioactive stuff, and it’s hard to refine.

    But let’s put all that aside for a moment and consider exactly how much high-level waste we’re talking about here. I found some EIA numbers that indicate that, in the US, we used 47,000 metric tonnes of uranium from 1968-2002. But we’re interested in a span of time from the early 1950s through, say, 2200, and there’s other low-level waste, so let’s multiply that number by, oh, I don’t know, 50, and say we’ve got 2,350,000 tonnes of pretty nasty stuff to dispose of. Let’s assume we did absolutely nothing with that waste except to bury it. How much land would we pollute?

    Well, the approximate density of uranium is 19.1 grams per cubic centimeter, a million grams to the tonne, which means that we have 123 billion cubic centimeters of waste, which is 123,000 cubic meters of waste at a million cc’s to the cubic meter. In other words, if you took all the waste for 250 years and melted it down into a single, giant cube, that cube would be 50 meters on a side. It would fit comfortably into a football stadium.

    Of course, if you put all that spent fuel in one big cube, you’d have a terrible mess, because the whole thing would go critical and melt. So you have to parcel it up into nice little bite-sized chunks before you bury it. Let’s say that each chunk is 0.1 cubic meters. Let’s further say that each chunk has to be buried 2 meters away from every other chunk. By my reckoning (and it’s always scary doing this in front of physicists) that means that you’d need 4.9 million square meters to bury all the waste.

    But, at a million square meters to the square kilometer, that’s only 4.9 square kilometers, or a square 2.2 kilometers on a side.

    Now, there’s no doubt that, by just burying this stuff, we’ve totally trashed those 5 square kilometers. We have also trashed the surrounding water table, so maybe we’ve actually trashed an area that’s 50 or even 100 square kilometers. And you’d definitely want to avoid having this stuff leech into an aquifer, or blow away in topsoil, or a whole bunch of other things. So let’s all agree that we’d like to a better job than tossing the stuff in a bunch of holes.

    But look how tiny the problem is when you actually do the arithmetic. On a grand scale, we’re just not talking about a lot of space to store the stuff. This is why I say that waste disposal is largely a political problem, not a technical one. Sure, it’ll take multiple tens of billions of dollars to address, and we’re really going to piss of a bunch of NIMBYs and BANANAs. But it’s not a technically difficult problem.

    I’d like to compare the impact of radioactive pollution to that of semiconductor pollution, or the amount of land taken out of service by new power lines to service wind farms, but I’ve already gone on way too long. Radioactive waste is just another poison, like the arsenic and gallium used in semiconductor manufacture. But it’s not anything to get worked up over.

  • Perk

    I wish I could get more excited about this, but I have followed the work of the D.O.E. at the Solar Research Institute (now NERL http://www.nrel.gov/overview/ ) in Golden, CO since the 1970’s. Somehow, the DOE is able to take some of the best and brightest people, fund and equip them fantastically, and even after three decades produce no usable solutions to our energy issues.

    Virtually all of the innovative work in alternative energy has been performed by individuals with minimal funding. How can we create more of them?

  • Anonymous (same one)

    Radical Moderate – there’s big differences. There’s two parts to a closed fuel cycle: the reprocessing (chemical or electrochemical partitioning of waste), and the breeder reactor (nuclear transmutation of waste – particularly fissionable transuranic elements – in a fast reactor). The French fuel economy only has reprocessing – they do not have any working fast reactors (although they had SuperPhenix in the 80’s). This means they do not have a way of disposing of many of the long-lived transuranic elements – isotopes of Neptunium, Curium, Americium – which are responsible for the longevity of nuclear waste. They can technically dispose of one of those actinides – plutonium, in the form of MOX fuel which can be burned in an ordinary thermal reactor – although AFAIK they are not presently doing so. Reprocessing by itself still has merit though – separating out inert stuff reduces the volume of geologic repository waste by a couple orders of magnitude.

    The IFR concept has BOTH components: the sodium-cooled fast reactor, and reprocessing based on electrorefining of molten metals. Beyond the current system of any extant fuel cycle, it not only separates transuranics but DESTROYS them completely. The very heavy nuclei, having half-lives in thousands of years, are fissioned by high-energy neutrons, yielding short-lived fission products (decades or less). Any remaining, unburned actinides are partitioned out and sent back to the reactor – it’s a closed cycle. In this way, the waste does not need storage beyond a couple of centuries.

    IFR is not the only idea – there’s others, though none have been commercially realized. (Closed fuel cycles are more resource-intensive, hence costly, than conventional “once-through” cycles; there’s no economic incentive to reprocess when mined fuel is cheap.) For example, fast reactors can be based on working fluids other than liquid sodium. Water is not an option, because it is an effective neutron moderator and will thermalize the fast neutrons that you need. A lead-bismuth eutectic is one alternative – it is currently used in the reactors of Russia’s Alfa-class nuclear submarines. Or a gas coolant is possible – the German THTR-300 reactor used helium cooling, which allows very high temperatures to be reached (liquid metals are limited by corrosion issues, I think). And if you switch to a thorium fuel cycle, you don’t even need fast reactors: Th-232 can sustain a breeding cycle (to fissile U-233) in the thermal neutron spectrum, which allows for moderated reactors like pressurized heavy-water reactors (PHWR) under development in India (they are closely related to CANDUs), or a liquid thorium fluoride reactor (LFTR), tested at Oak Ridge in the 1960’s.

    So the options are very broad – fast or thermal reactors; chemical or electrochemical reprocessing; uranium, plutonium (MOX), or thorium fuel – all are candidates for a closed fuel cycle. All closed fuel cycles share the key benefits in common: no long-lived transuranic waste, no need for geologic waste storage, and fuel efficiency two orders of magnitude higher than current-generation reactors.

    James Hansen wrote a letter to Obama endorsing these closed nuclear fuel cycles. It is hosted on his academic page at Columbia University (I can’t link to it or the spam filter will likely delete my comment, for having links in it).

  • http://radical-moderation.blogspot.com/ TheRadicalModerate

    Anon, I understand how IFR works and what fast neutrons do to actinides. But the French PUREX approach is an interesting case study: basically, they have so little waste at the end of the reprocessing phase that there simply isn’t a storage issue.

    Of course, there’s always a big uproar over reprocessing because of its proliferative potential. What if security breaks down and we get lots of HEU into the black market? Again, this is a political problem of the “Doctor, it hurts when I do this,” sort. Answer: Don’t do that. Have decent security. The whole argument is approximately equivalent to worrying about somebody breaking into a nuclear weapons storage facility. People did worry about it, and now nobody views the possibility of a break-in as particularly troublesome. So, do the same thing with your reprocessing facilities.

  • Paul Stankus

    Anon & RadicalModerate —

    I think you’re both right on the mark, and I can’t tell you how refreshing (and rare) it is to read clear and informed commentary on nuclear power. Let me contribute a bit further on the subject of proliferation resistance.

    As TRM says, the if you’re worried about the security of plutonium during reprocessing then you just have to pay for the security you need. But even better would be not to produce any plutonium, or other weapons-usable material, in the first place. This is one big advantage of the thermal thorium breeder cycle that Anon. mentioned earlier. Breeding Th-232 into fissile U-233 and using that as fuel results in essentially no other actinides being created. This means that there’s no americium or curium and so very little long-lived high-level waste; but it also means that there’s no plutonium either. So with the thorium cycle you don’t have to re-process and burn away the plutonium, you never have to worry about it at all.

    It is technically true that U-233 can be used to make weapons, but there are many reasons why this is so difficult in practice that it’s not (to my knowledge) generally considered a proliferation risk. A main factor is that U-233 that is bred from thorium will typically contain contamination by U-232, which is highly radioactive with a short lifetime and a high-energy gamma decay in its decay chain. This makes the stuff very difficult to handle outside a facility like a reactor, and it also creates pre-ignition problems that would make the U-233 ineffective for weapons. In his second bomb book _Dark Sun_, Richard Rhodes explains that the US did mange to make fission weapon cores from U-233 in the 1950’s but standardized on plutonium as being much easier and more reliable. And this is the main reason that U-233 is not considered a proliferation risk: since no one regularly uses it to make weapons there are no plans you can readily buy or steal, and there’s no one you can hire who immediately knows how to do it.

    So the thermal thorium breeder cycle is really something of a win-win: vastly less long-lived waste, and essentially no proliferation potential. Why you don’t hear about it more often is a longer story, for a longer comment.

  • Bette

    Transportation is a major factor in energy problems. Let’s start thinking local, there is no transmission issue with local production of wind, solar, wave, geothermal, offal into fuel and many other ways per environmental niche, some areas able to utilize all. Have community gardens as well as family size farms producing food for local consumption reducing or removing transportation from the equation. Have new housing go in with solar roof tiles, efficient construction techniques and orientation utilizing passive solar energy, with a park in the center of where the neighborhood organic garden would also be. Provide ownership of problem and solutions to the communities and they will step up. People can get along, it will be difficult when ego issues get in the way, but it can be done. The solution is that there is not one solution. There are MANY small ways ALL OF US can make a difference, it will take many small solutions and many high quality consciousness’ to fix this big problem society is facing. We can do it. Love, Bette

  • http://hep.upenn.edu/~ashmansk Bill A

    Has anyone found a podcast of this all-hands address yet? I was not able to see the talk but am interested in its contents.

  • Axil

    TheRadicalModerate:

    Of course, there’s always a big uproar over reprocessing because of its proliferative potential. What if security breaks down and we get lots of HEU into the black market? Again, this is a political problem of the “Doctor, it hurts when I do this,” sort. Answer: Don’t do that. Have decent security. The whole argument is approximately equivalent to worrying about somebody breaking into a nuclear weapons storage facility. People did worry about it, and now nobody views the possibility of a break-in as particularly troublesome. So, do the same thing with your reprocessing facilities.

    I like the Lftr. The LFTR is a very simple, efficient, and elegant type of reactor. It can use any kind of nuclear fuel, bomb material, or nuclear waste product to produce very high temperature heat and at the same time breed more fuel in the bargain. This thrifty approach to nuclear energy greatly appeals to me, but I became even more interested in the LFTR when the details of a new patent were revealed by Dr LeBlanc. It opens up the possibility of building a reactor that can run for 30 years without refueling in an unattended mode sited underground while it breeds new fuel within the thorium structure of the reactor itself. In order to get to this U233 that has been produced inside the very walls of the reactor containment vessel, a proliferator must destroy the reactor, chop it up into small pieces while enduring heavy gamma radiation exposure without being detected, then reprocess these reactor pieces using isotopic separation since the U233 is denatured with enough U238 to make chemical separation of bomb grade U233 impossible. Now, this is a tall order for any proliferator and may just be an impossible assignment.

    At the end of the service life of the Lftr, the reactor vessel is sent back to the factory where it is reduced to liquid fluoride salts that become the feedstock of a next new Lftr. This feedstock can only be used by the new Lftr and not for bombs. The waste products are held at the factory for a few hundred years to cool down before they are mined for the many precious elements contained within like platinum and iridium. Now that’s what I call a safe, efficient and thrifty mode of operation.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+