Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Open letter to President’s Science Advisor

February 1, 2010

Dr. John P. Holdren
Director, Office of Science & Technology Policy,
Executive Office of the President
Washington, D.C.

cc. Dr. Steven Chu,
Secretary, Department of Energy

24 member Committee—National Academies “America’s Energy Future”

Members of Congress

Dear Dr. Holdren:

Peace on earth and preservation of the marvels of nature will not be achieved without a sound energy policy. This must include well-managed and well-governed thermal- and fast-neutron nuclear power, recycling spent fuels and depleted uranium. This was the goal of the founding scientists in the late 1940s and still is the best way to a reliable and secure energy future.

This letter is about American policy in a world that counts on American leadership. Although that leadership is vital if there is to be an orderly global deployment of nuclear technology, the United States has for a decade and a half left the evolution of nuclear-power technology largely to others, and consequently is being left behind. At present, 58 new nuclear plants (including two fast reactors, one in Russia and one in India) are under construction in 14 countries. Of these, 20 are in China, 9 in Russia, 6 each in India and South Korea. Only one is in North America, and that is resumption of work on a plant that was mothballed in 1988 when it was 80% finished. France has just announced a $7 billion commitment for a “sustainable development” program that includes promotion of fourth-generation nuclear reactors, three of which are fast-neutron reactors—a technology in which the United States was once the world leader.

America needs to proceed quickly—not twenty or fifty years from now—while the people who pioneered this science and engineering can still provide guidance to a new generation of scientists and engineers. There is no political, economic or technical justification for delaying the benefits that nuclear power will bring to the United States and that U.S. leadership can bring to the world.

We have three urgent recommendations.

First, we believe it’s imperative to accelerate the licensing and building of the kind of reactors now in use, commonly called thermal reactors. For the last 40 years the LWRs in the United States and CANDU reactors in Canada have served us well. Nuclear plants also have the unique capability to convert swords into ploughshares. Currently, half of the US nuclear electric power comes from reactor-grade fuel consisting of down blended weapons-grade uranium purchased from Russia under the 1993 US-Russian nonproliferation treaty, under which more than 15,000 Russian nuclear warheads have already been disassembled. This program is scheduled to continue into 2013.

While the performance and safety records of the existing reactors have been excellent, the evolutionary improvements in new thermal-reactor designs will take both safety and efficiency to an even higher level.

Second, along with the critical need for nuclear energy is the urgent call for the isotopes of nuclear medicine. Currently there are major shortages, especially in Mo99/Tc99m, which is only produced outside of the United States. This ongoing crisis has hampered diagnostic and thera­peutic procedures for all the major diseases (all forms of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, et al.). Thousands of lives are in jeopardy. Initiation of large scale domestic production of the full spectrum of medical and industrial isotopes is overdue and can be done without using highly enriched uranium. Just recently, the NRC announced that they would allow a U.S. nuclear power utility to produce Co-60, heretofore 100% imported.

Third, development of fourth-generation nuclear reactors will be needed if nuclear power is to expand significantly beyond its present market penetration—an expansion that is so necessary if our descendants are to have ample energy over the coming millennia. Therefore, we strongly recommend reinstating the development and demonstration of the technology for recycling used fuel—a goal of fast fourth-generation nuclear reactors—as epitomized by the U.S.-developed Integral Fast Reactor (IFR). The IFR transforms used fuel from a “waste” to a major energy resource, and in so doing it happens to resolve a major public concern about nuclear power—the safe use of the long-lived radioactive byproducts. Further, IFRs can utilize excess weapons plutonium effectively and rapidly, while generating revenue instead of costs—a development consistent with Russian recommendations.

Work on the IFR technology was halted just as commercial viability was about to be demonstrated. While the operability of the reactor portion of the IFR has been adequately established, a commercial-scale demonstration is needed to settle details of the fuel-processing phase and to refine cost projections. Russia, China, India, Japan, and South Korea have expressed interest in the technology of metal-fueled fast reactors, and would likely contribute to a demonstration plant in exchange for design and operations information.

The energy in uranium provides 20% of the electricity in the United States today. We must expand that nuclear contribution rapidly if we are to maintain the welfare of our people, protect our environment, and preserve a leading international role in the evolution of nuclear technology.


John A. Shanahan
Civil Engineer

Joseph M. Shuster
Chemical Engineer

Leonard J. Koch,
National Academy of Engineering

Theodore Rockwell
National Academy of Engineering

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P.S. Two signatories of this letter, Leonard J. Koch of Arizona, USA, and Dr. Evgeny Velikhov of Russia, are Global Energy Prize laureates—an award that is characterized as the Russian equivalent of the Nobel Prize for outstanding research to solve the world's energy problems.

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The complete document with over 300 signatures is available online in MS Word format. Click here for the file in PDF format.


Cheryl Rofer said...

Interesting group of signers. There are a few I wouldn't have solicited; I think they detract from credibility. But they are only a few, and the diversity of thinking represented is significant.

And "the United States has for a decade and a half left the evolution of nuclear-power technology largely to others"? I'd put it at closer to three decades.

Brian Mays said...

Well, in case you didn't notice, a good portion of the authors of this letter were folks who worked on the IFR. Apparently, they're still a little miffed that the project was canceled in 1994 (who can blame them), hence a "decade and a half."