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DOE Advisor Talks Nukes, Fusion

Rob Boisseau
Number 62 - June 6, 2008  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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A recent event hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) offered a talk by Dr. Vic Reis, Special Advisor to the Secretary of Energy.  The event, Nuclear Energy, Nuclear Weapons and Climate Change: Options and Opportunities for the Next Administration, highlighted key issues that Reis argues are interconnected and must be considered simultaneously.

Reis began by highlighting the public’s interest in energy and climate change issues, and suggested that policy makers should harness that concern to effect change.  According to Reis, global development, particularly the increasing demand for electricity in developing nations, climate change, and national security are part of a nuclear “Gesamtkonzept,” or overall plan.  Reis said that highly regulated nuclear programs could provide energy to these populations, offer part of the solution to global warming, and would not compromise national security.

Reis continued with a discussion on what he called “a historic opportunity for the next administration” with nuclear energy.  After sharing figures on climate change projections and the efficiency of nuclear power as compared to other energy sources, Reis seemed optimistic about the presidential candidates’ views on nuclear energy.  Reis briefly commented on the nuclear arsenal, saying that Congress favored gradually reducing the stockpile, while President Bush supports the same while also looking to develop a reliable replacement warhead.  On the related subject of nuclear proliferation, Reis admitted that there was no “silver bullet,” but said that with a strong international regulatory agency and vigilance, the threat could be minimized.

Closing, Reis made the case for expanding nuclear energy.  Referencing his previous statistics on nuclear energy, Reis argued that developments in reactor design, and the low carbon footprint of a plant left only the issue of nuclear waste to be solved.  Reis suggested that geographical and generational fairness was important.  Geographically, the storage of nuclear waste has proven to be a contentious issue, especially at the Yucca Mountain Repository in Nevada.  The transportation of hazardous nuclear waste is also of concern.  In regards to generational fairness, Reis argued that future generations should not be burdened with decisions made today, and that contemporary models of waste storage should take into account what future generations might want to do with that waste product.

Following Reis’ talk, the floor was opened to questions.  Reis was quick to note that his answers were his own opinion, and not to be attributed to his office.  Reis was asked about the availability of uranium.  In response, Reis said that if the demand for uranium increases, its cost will continue to rise, but that there is enough uranium for “thousands of years.” 

Perhaps the most noteworthy moment of the night came when Reis was asked, “Have we given up on fusion reactors?”  Reis replied, “Yeah,” eliciting a murmur from the audience.  He added, “Well I, nobody asked me that.  That’s a good question.  I think that there are some very interesting hybrid concepts that people have talked about, where you can get a lot of, you use your neutrons from a fusion reaction but then you use the energy if you will from a fission source.  But, no I don’t think we need fusion at this, over the next, you know, basically, I think that there is enough fission and things like that for over the next century.  But that’s my view, you might get some different people to argue that.

A final question was raised about whether or not the U.S. needed something like the “Manhattan Project” to find a solution to the energy problem.  Reis disagreed with the analogy and suggested that a better one was the Cold War when, according to Reis, the U.S. came together and built programs that achieved solutions.  Reis offered NASA and NSF as examples.

Rob Boisseau
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics