Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.
During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.
Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Peter B. Lyons by David Zierler on March 29, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Peter Lyons, former Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy in the Department of Energy. Lyons describes his consulting work as an advisor to National Laboratories, for Jordan’s Atomic Energy Advisory Board, and as a Distinguished Energy Fellow at the Institute of Energy Economics of Japan. He recounts his childhood in Nevada, and he discusses his undergraduate education in physics at the University of Arizona. Lyons discusses the opportunities that led to his graduate research at Caltech where Charlie Barnes and Willy Fowler were formative influences for his work on stellar nucleosynthesis. He describes his postdoctoral appointment at Los Alamos to work on laser fusion and his work in the plasma group. Lyons explains the value of fiber optics for nuclear testing, and he describes his view of SDI when he was a program director at the Lab. He describes his work as Deputy Associate Director for Defense Research and Applications, and how the end of the Cold War was felt at the Lab and in particular for its work in securing the nuclear stockpile of the former Soviet Union. Lyons describes how the Lab adapted to post-Cold War research during his time as Deputy Associate Director for Energy and Environment, and how he became increasingly interested in civilian energy issues. He discusses how the Lab became more involved as a partner to major industrial projects, and he explains his decision to leave the Lab to work for Senator Pete Domenici as science advisor, where he was closely involved in legislation on a number of scientific projects. Lyons describes recent advances in civilian nuclear energy and why hydrogen will be a significant player in the energy future. He discusses his tenure at NRC Commissioner, and his appointment at the Department of Energy with the incoming Obama administration. Lyons explains the impact of the Fukushima disaster on broader discussions relating to civilian nuclear energy, and he explains his decision to retire and the satisfaction he has felt as many of the program he contributed to continue to grow. At the end of the interview, Lyons provides a broad view on where civilian nuclear energy is on the right track as part of a carbon neutral future, and where he sees opportunities for technical and administrative improvement.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is March 29th, 2021. I’m delighted to be here with Dr. Peter B. Lyons. Pete, it’s great to see you. Thank you for joining me.
Really happy to be here.
Pete, to start would you please tell me your current or most recent institutional affiliation and title?
My last official title was Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy in the Department of Energy. I can probably give you other titles that go with some of my consulting, but I assume you meant the more official title.
What have you been involved with in the consulting world in the past few years?
I’ve served on advisory committees for four of the national laboratories and chaired some of them; I find those very interesting. In addition, I’ve worked with some companies, particularly small modular reactors at NuScale. I was involved with the CASL Project (Consortium for Modeling and Simulation of Light Water Reactors) at Oak Ridge, and I’ve been the chairman of the CASL Board of Directors for several years. The CASL project ended about two years ago, as planned by both Congress and the DOE. Internationally, I’m a member of Jordan’s Atomic Energy Advisory Board. Jordan is very interested in moving ahead with nuclear energy and a number of us are trying to provide reasonable advice to them. I’ve also served on an advisory board for JAEA, Japan Atomic Energy Authority. I am a Distinguished Energy Fellow with the Institute of Energy Economics of Japan. (IEEJ) That is a very interesting organization that, as the name implies, is looking at the energy economics for Japan. And, if there ever was a country in addition to the United States that had better pay attention to energy economics, it’s Japan.
So, I think those are the things that have kept me out of trouble for the last few years after my retirement in 2015.
I wonder, Pete, if in some ways you’ve welcomed our universal embrace of video conferencing over the past year in the pandemic. A lot less flying around for all of your consulting work I would imagine.
That’s true. However, with the illness that I’m currently fighting, I couldn’t travel anyway.
I’m certainly at great risk for the coronavirus, or anything else for that matter, because of the chemo that I’ve been on. I would not have been allowed by my doctors to travel, quite independent of the pandemic. So, I’ve had two reasons not to travel. And yes, I have welcomed it; it’s the only way I could participate.
Certainly. Well, Pete, let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me a little bit about them and where they’re from.
My Mom was born in Boston. Her parents had come to this country, one from Ukraine and one from Poland. They met in Boston, and my Mom was a product of that marriage. She was working at MIT when my Dad was enrolled there in a Master’s in chemical engineering program. They met and were married in Boston. My Dad had a very strong scientific background which may have provided some incentive or motivation for me. And my Mom was a fabulous people person which I’ve found difficult to emulate. But she was also incredibly helpful in the evolution of my career. We did lots of hiking and a lot of camping as a family.
Did you grow up in Boston?
No. I was born in Indiana. However, shortly thereafter my Dad moved to work with Titanium Metals Corporation of America in Henderson, Nevada. I was starting the fourth grade at the time. My Dad made the decision to not live in Henderson, Nevada, and instead chose to live in Boulder City nearby. Boulder City had a much stronger school system than Henderson. It was ten miles away, but over a range of mountains which meant the pollution from Henderson and Vegas stayed on their side of the mountains. And Boulder City, which was the town built to house the workers who built Hoover Dam, was known as “clean, green Boulder City.” The government had done a very good job of putting in parks and the school system was excellent. So, in any case, we lived in Boulder City. My dad worked in Henderson. And we were just far enough away from Las Vegas that we could enjoy some of what Las Vegas had to offer as I was growing up and far enough away that we could leave Las Vegas. Both of which are very important. There was no gambling, nor was there any hard liquor in Boulder City, which needless to say are not quite emulated in Las Vegas.
(Laughter) Pete, growing up did your dad involve you in his work at all? Did you know what it meant to be a scientist even as a small boy?
Well, I certainly knew what he was doing in his work on refinement of titanium, but I wouldn’t say that I contributed in any way at all. He was very involved in a number of patents in developing the processes to refine and purify titanium. I think that also provided some scientific motivation for me. But I’d honestly give the greatest credit for my moving into science to my high school math teacher who was absolutely phenomenal. And he was the reason that when I enrolled in college I signed up as a math major. Now, that only lasted a year because, although I was doing just fine, I also decided that maybe being a math major wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. So, I ended up with a double major in math and physics. But at least I started in math and I think my math teacher, Jim Nelson, deserves a tremendous amount of credit for getting me pointed toward math, but also science in general. He was by far the best teacher I had in Boulder City.
Pete, are there any specific examples you can look back on and think that the American response to Sputnik was specifically valuable in terms of the resources that were available to you in math and science?
Well, I graduated from high school in 1960. If I’m remembering correctly, Sputnik was ’57 or ’53?
I wouldn’t say that it really changed anything that was going on at Boulder City High School. But it certainly was a tremendous wake up call for the country that we weren’t exactly leading the world in some pretty key areas. I can’t say that led me into science, but it certainly didn’t hurt, and it was certainly reinforcement.
Was there a particular professor or a class at The University of Arizona that compelled you to focus on physics?
I went to University of Arizona because they were a state school, were close by, were relatively inexpensive and I had a nice scholarship. I went there for the math program, then switched mostly to physics. The physics program was not particularly strong at University of Arizona but there were some very good professors. And I remember some of them certainly went out of their way to try to help and encourage me. I’ve often felt that I should thank Arizona perhaps the most for getting me into Caltech. I can’t name any prior graduates of the University of Arizona who went to Caltech, but the year that I graduated two of us made it in, both of us graduated. Going to Caltech was a phenomenal shock to put it mildly after four years at Arizona, but I worked through it, and graduated with my PhD in 1969. Caltech was a fabulous place for graduate students.
Pete, when you were graduating from Arizona, the Vietnam War was ramping up. Was the draft something you had to contend with?
To the extent that I remember, I don’t think so because Caltech- and I don’t know how they did it, had some way of getting an exemption for me. I think that was true of all the Caltech students probably from the argument that they would help the nation in science and technology. I had certainly registered for the draft, but I was told by Caltech that I could not be drafted, and I guess they were right.
By the time you got to Caltech how well-formed were your ideas about the kind of physics you wanted to pursue? In other words, did you know you wanted to do theory or experimentation? Were you most interested in particle physics, astrophysics? What did you want to do before you even got to Caltech?
I wanted to be in experimental physics, that much I knew. However, I didn’t have a clear notion of what area of experimental physics I wanted to go into. I did what probably most graduate students do - talk to a lot of professors and see what current openings they had for graduate students. I went into the Kellogg Radiation Laboratory where I had two thesis advisers, Professors Charlie Barnes and Willy Fowler, both phenomenal individuals. Willy Fowler became a Nobel Laureate in astrophysics. I was one of many graduate students in the Kellogg Lab who were working on measurements that were needed to better understand stellar nucleosynthesis. Charlie Barnes was a superb experimentalist. And the combination of having Charlie working with us on the measurements followed by calculations that went into Willy Fowler’s work was really an ideal arrangement. Those were two phenomenal professors.
What were some of the most exciting things that were going on in the Department of Physics while you were there?
Well, certainly Willy Fowler’s work was plenty exciting and there was also considerable interest in trying to better understand what was going on with neutrinos. Ray Davis was doing neutrino experiments that were not coming out with the number of neutrinos that calculations said they should be getting. I don’t know if it was while I was at Caltech or shortly thereafter that the concept of neutrino oscillations came along and that largely explained the discrepancy that they were seeing, but that was fascinating. That’s certainly the first area that comes to mind in addition to the astrophysics that Willy Fowler was doing. Now you could easily argue that the neutrino work was astrophysics and really it was. The people working on the theory of neutrino experiments, like John Bahcall, were also in the Kellogg Lab. I’m sure there were many other exciting research areas at Caltech, but this is the first one to come to mind.
Pete, how did you go about developing the topic that would ultimately become your thesis research?
Willy Fowler suggested that an area of stellar nucleosynthesis that needed better understanding was the silicon burning phase of stellar evolution. He was interested in measurements of the cross sections that would determine how the silicon-burning process progresses. This requires measuring the 27Al(p,gamma) and the 24Mg(alpha,gamma) cross sections as a function of energy, and then calculating rates for the inverse of those reactions for use in stellar nucleosynthesis calculations. I worked with another graduate student, Jim Toevs. Jim and I came up with a relatively simple, at least conceptually, way of obtaining large amounts of cross section data by measuring gammas but doing it in a way where we didn’t seek to resolve the energy of the gammas There was a lot of work that went into calibrating this array of sodium iodide detectors; This was back in the days when most gamma detection used sodium iodide. Some Ge(Li) detectors were just starting to become available, and we did use them a little. But the way we had the experiment set up, we needed big sodium iodide crystals to enclose the reaction volume in sodium iodide.
Most of the effort went into obtaining the data as a function of alpha or proton energy and calibrating the sodium iodide system. It was interesting work and it gave me a very broad background in nuclear physics technologies. We used a Van de Graaff accelerator and Jim and I spent a lot of time inside the tank of the Van de Graaff for repairs or cleaning. One fairly interesting episode was when we were in the large tank of the Van de Graaff, which had to be very clean in order to minimize arcing. One time we were both in the tank using, I’m not sure what solvent it was, but it was some fairly noxious chemical. We had a lot of ventilation, we thought enough. But apparently there were many, many rumors at Caltech about Jim and I being fairly plastered as we came out of that tank. At least the tank was clean and the Van de Graaff kept working.
Was it a unique arrangement to have two thesis advisors? For Fowler and Barnes to be co-directing your dissertations?
It was unusual to have both of them formally listed as advisors. However, the combination of Fowler and Barnes helped a number of graduate students. I don’t honestly know how many of them formally had two thesis advisors, but they certainly acted like they were joint thesis advisors. Their interests and expertise were in very different areas. There were other professors at the Kellogg Radiation Lab who also were experts in nuclear physics measurements, and they also participated in work that supported Willy Fowler’s nuclear astrophysics. Professor Tombrello would be one, Kavanaugh was another, all outstanding professors.
What were some of the key conclusions from your thesis research?
The main output was calculated rates for silicon burning. I think it was well after I graduated and left Caltech that they were built into calculational models.
Besides Fowler and Barnes, who else was on your thesis committee at the oral defense?
Professors Christy and Persson were also on my committee.
Pete, when you defended, what options were available to you in terms of postdocs or faculty appointments?
I didn’t seek postdocs or faculty appointments; I was interested in moving either into industry or the national labs. I very much wanted to stay with general experimental physics. I graduated in 1969 and there were quite a lot of physics graduates on the market in 1970, and ’71. I was lucky to be out just before that. I received job offers from both Sandia and Los Alamos. I chose Los Alamos. I’ve always wondered how my career would’ve been different if I hadn’t chosen Los Alamos. But there were a few things that slightly impressed me more about Los Alamos even though Sandia’s salary offer was higher. I preferred the environment of Los Alamos, and I liked the fact that when the guys at Los Alamos took me out to eat we went to the local bar, because there wasn’t much other place to eat in Los Alamos. At Sandia they took me to a country club. I’m just not a country club type.
What was the work that you would have done at Sandia?
I would’ve worked on explosively driven compression of magnetic fields with Everett Beckner, who went on to direct NNSA, the nuclear weapons program in the Department of Energy. It would have been fascinating work, no question about that. I had two offers from Los Alamos. One was as a postdoc at the Meson Facility and one was working in the weapon testing area as a staff member. I chose the staff member option and again, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t. But I had a child on the way, and I felt that we needed the stability of the staff member position. The staff position was in a group that focused on high-speed diagnostics of plasma physics experiments in weapons or laser fusion. I worked quite a bit in both areas, and both were fascinating.
To what extent was your graduate research relevant for this work or was it a totally unconnected, brand-new field for you?
In both the Test Site and laser fusion, I was asked to come up with ways of measuring X-ray spectrum from plasmas as a function of time. It’s somewhat similar to the gamma detection work that I did at Caltech, but we were using totally different detectors, of course. But there was at least some relevance between the two. In both cases I had to develop detection systems and calibrate them; one for gammas and one for low energy X-rays. They’re both very interesting, and I enjoyed both of them.
Los Alamos was divided, there was the military component, but then there’s also the academic component where there’s just basic science going on, to what extent did you straddle both worlds in this group and to what extent were you more in one or the other?
Well, the laser fusion work was not part of the military side at that time, whereas the weapon testing was. So, in that sense I did straddle it. Now, later in my career at Los Alamos I went into a number of different areas after I decided I really wanted to move away from the weapons work. I started working more on nonproliferation and then got into energy and environment programs at Los Alamos. One great feature of a place like Los Alamos is that you can change your career, let’s say every five years, and still stay at Los Alamos. It’s so broad and there’s so many different areas that are going on that I found it just very convenient to be able to decide when I wanted to leave a particular area and move to a different area of research.
Pete, what were some of the key accomplishments of the plasma group during your time there?
I realized very early in my time at Los Alamos that the way that X-ray detectors were being calibrated was wrong and was leading to inaccurate conclusions. I talked with the group leader, explained to him what I thought the problem was, and he said, “Okay. Go fix it,” and I spent several years doing that. It was extremely interesting work to try to untangle the correct response of the detectors that were being used both in laser fusion and at the Test Site.
Later on, I became more involved in the recording aspects of the high-speed measurements and that’s when I started to get very interested in fiber optic technology. I and a few others- by then I was probably group leader, really introduced fiber optics to the Nevada Test Site. And that too was fascinating, trying to come up with the cable designs that could withstand the rigors of the Nevada Test Site. I’m told by folks who worked at some of the fiber optic cable companies that the work that they did for us at Los Alamos was instrumental in developing undersea cables using fiber optics, in both cases to protect the fibers from their environment. At the Test Site for the underground testing, we worked with something called gas blocking. We had to be very, very convinced and convince others that there could be no radioactive gases flowing up along voids around the fiber. Initially the fiber optic cables consisted of nothing more than a fiber in a plastic tube with some protection around it. Those tubes leaked like sieves and could not have been used at the Test Site. We worked with AT&T, Andrews, and ITT to come up with a silicone gel that could be injected into the tubes in which the fibers had been placed. That was completely effective in blocking transmission of radioactive gases up the tubes and was also very effective in preventing seawater from getting to and attacking the fibers in undersea cables. I never had anything to do with the undersea cable work, but I was told that the work done at Los Alamos was important for the undersea cable work.
And we did at least some fairly original work in fiber optics too. For example, I worked to come up with scintillator that emitted far enough into the red that they would transmit effectively over fiber optics, since fiber optics are far more transparent in the far red or the infrared. Another challenge at the Test Site was that we needed very accurate timing between separate fibers. We had to be sure that we could cross time between different fibers. We also needed to be able to detect breaks in the fibers and, when that happened, we had to develop techniques to fix them. One of my patents was involved with a fiber optic time domain reflectometer that was very effective both for very accurate timing between fibers as well as fault detection within fibers.
Can you explain a little bit about why fiber optics would be useful in nuclear testing?
At the Nevada Test Site before fibers, all the data came up on coax cables. These aren’t the coax cables that you would use in your laboratory, some of these were very large diameter—I think 1 3/8 inches. These cables were very heavy such that around half of the weight of an underground experiment, was simply the cables that had to be supported as the device and experiments were lowered into the bore hole. In addition, the coax cables, no matter how carefully we worked on equalization, still were limited in terms of bandwidth. The fibers had much higher bandwidth and were tremendously lighter - orders of magnitude lighter. Those were the two main reasons.
Was this research at all relevant for the decision that you were named program director for nuclear defense research?
No. That came about when I was looking for a bit of a change in what I was doing. At the time I was group leader of the fast plasma group and I became interested in trying to move into the programmatic side of Los Alamos. At Los Alamos there tended to be a research side and a programmatic side. I thought it would be interesting to gain some experience in the program side. The program side interacts with different sponsors. It was a very interesting change for me and gave me a number of extremely interesting opportunities to interact in Washington as the Star Wars program moved ahead.
How well developed was SDI by the time you became program director?
Well, at Los Alamos they were looking at nuclear-driven directed energy, and there were several different approaches being studied. There also was work at Los Alamos for neutral particle beams, which were not nuclear-driven. SDI had many different approaches under consideration, contributions from Livermore and Los Alamos was driven by the energy from a bomb. One of the more interesting things I did in that area was to work with General Abrahamson who was head of SDI and tell him that the data he was getting from Livermore was faulty. Livermore, and Edward Teller in particular, were pushing a bomb driven X-ray laser. And some would say that that was one of the key possibilities that led President Reagan to develop an interest in SDI. There had been some experiments at Livermore in which they thought they were seeing bomb-driven lasing. We tried unsuccessfully to repeat some of their measurements, and we did not succeed. We then understood what was going wrong in the Livermore work and that led to some very interesting confrontations involving Edward Teller, myself, and General Abrahamson.
What was his reaction when you shared this analysis with him?
Initially, he thought we were wrong and simply tried to dismiss it. We knew we weren’t wrong and did a number of additional experiments to prove that we were correct. Edward Teller was a very interesting person, but let’s just say I’m not a great fan of him. As an interesting anecdote, I was involved in many meetings in Washington with General Abrahamson and Edward Teller along with leaders of other parts of SDI. In those meetings Edward Teller always would arrive an hour late, and General Abrahamson would not start the meeting until he arrived. When he did arrive the General would get up from his special seat under his three star General’s flag and escort Edward to sit in his seat. The General would then move down the table to sit. That’s the kind of respect that Edward Teller commanded in some areas of Washington. These issues in Star Wars were written up by Bill Broad, the science editor of The New York Times, who wrote a couple of books on SDI. I think the one that most went into this was called Teller’s War, it is very accurate, and I found it fascinating. But the end result was the X-ray laser was not a part of SDI.
Did the deference that General Abrahamson showed to Edward Teller, did that affect his analysis of the competing analyses that you had to offer?
Perhaps to some extent, but we eventually had enough data that we could make the case. Now we weren’t the only ones making this case. Roy Woodruff, who was director for weapons at Livermore, argued that the X-ray laser experiments were being oversold by Teller. He was basically fired by Teller. And then there was some very nasty legal issues that led to, I believe, financial benefits for Woodruff. I think that it was written up in Teller’s War. But again, it was indicative of the power that Edward Teller had, whether it was with General Abe or within Livermore. And I was very glad I wasn’t at Livermore!
Pete, the faulty data that you tell me about, to what extent is this a microcosm for the overall problems associated with the feasibility of SDI in its entirety?
Well, I think they’re actually fairly different. SDI had many, many challenges, certainly involved with the detection of reentry vehicles and development of concepts to differentiate between warheads and decoys. SDI was an extremely difficult problem and I think it’s fair to say that it had quite a number of challenges.
Who were some of the other key policy makers, military figures, or legislators that you interacted with during your meetings in Washington?
Well, the name that sticks to my mind is Lou Marquet. My memory is that he was in charge of directed energy weapons for General Abe including nuclear-driven concepts. He was looking at far more than nuclear driven systems, at things like large conventionally driven lasers, for example, or the neutral particle beam. I’m not sure how to answer that, David. I would say that SDI was so oversold and had so many problems from a technical standpoint that its difficulties were not terribly surprising.
It’s well understood that, it’s argued, I should say, that Reagan’s decision to ramp up military spending was one of the factors that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. True or not, to what extent did you specifically feel that during these years?
Well I’m certainly familiar with the argument’s that it was instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I’m not in a position to judge whether that’s the case. I was, however, heavily involved in nonproliferation work in the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation. At that time, they were desperate there’s no question about that. But I don’t know to what extent SDI contributed to that issue. There are certainly experts who would say that it had a very major effect. I wasn’t in a position to really see that.
But in terms of the budgetary impact on your own work, were you working in an environment where- I don’t want to say money was no object. But were the funds free flowing during these years for you to do what you wanted?
The work in nuclear-driven directed energy was well-funded, I think it was probably better funded at Livermore, but I wouldn’t say that we had more funding then we could use. In these meetings with General Abe and Teller, I remember many times when General Abe asked Teller how much money he needed that year. After he got a number, he said, “Okay. That’s what it will be.” And I think there was a little bit more rigor in the examination of budgets at Los Alamos. In my view, General Abe to a large extent did what Edward Teller told him to do. And by the way, and I’m sure you know all this, Edward Teller has a very, very long and somewhat checkered history going back a long way, and a lot of that involves Los Alamos. I wasn’t there for his interactions involving Oppenheimer, but certainly from what I’ve read, I find rather stomach turning. Perhaps, I didn’t start out with the greatest appreciation for Edward Teller. But at least in the case of the X-ray laser, the data stood on its own.
Pete, what were the circumstances surrounding your decision to become deputy associate director for defense research and applications?
By then I had been involved with SDI for quite a while and. I was directing essentially all of the nuclear-driven SDI work at Los Alamos. I was very interested in looking at other areas of the laboratory but staying on the programmatic side. That position in defense research was another programmatic area in which I thought I could assist the lab and learn still more about how decisions on program funding and scope were developed.
What were some of your key responsibilities in that role?
Oh, you’re going back too far. I honestly don’t remember, but they included all Lab interactions with DoD.
Intelligence operations were a component of this?
They were, but I wasn’t particularly involved in that. SDI was still a part of it. In any case, it was an opportunity for me to move further into programmatic work at the Laboratory and that was the direction I wanted to go.
Pete, it was during your time as deputy associate director, of course, that the Berlin Wall fell and then ultimately the Soviet Union collapsed. What were some of the immediate and more long-term responses at Los Alamos to these global events?
There was very strong recognition starting with our director, Sig Hecker, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was leading to an extremely unfortunate situation from the standpoint of nuclear proliferation. Almost overnight there were vast quantities of weapon materials in what had been the Soviet Union, and became the Russian Federation, that were simply not protected. They only had guards and guns, nothing fancier than that. But with the demise of the Soviet Union and the financial situation of the Russian Federation, those guards weren’t always paid. We were concerned that this could lead to leakage of weapons materials to terrorist states or groups. These same concerns applied to weapons scientists; previously they had extremely well-paid jobs in the closed cities, the nuclear cities of Russia. And all of a sudden, they weren’t getting paid either. Sig Hecker, Senator Domenici, Dick Lugar and Sam Nunn certainly recognized that these were potential issues so there was considerable encouragement to look for ways through which the Russian weapons scientists could be supported on non-weapons work.
One way was through the ISTC, the International Science and Technology Center, that I think was set up through the Nunn-Lugar legislation. ISTC initially operated only in Russia, but later it operated in Ukraine and other countries too. It was an attempt to involve Russian weapons scientists in areas where they would work with commercial interests within the U.S. on commercial projects. A U.S. lab scientist would be part of this and direct the work. The general idea was to move the weapons scientists away from weapons, but make sure they were paid in the process.
I made a number of trips to Russia working with the ISTC, and then later when I was Director for Industrial Partnerships, I again worked to create partnerships between U.S. industry and Russian weapons scientists. The whole point was to keep the weapons scientists funded, keep them in Russia, and make sure they didn’t have a strong incentive to share their skills elsewhere. There was also, along with this, the MPC&A, Materials Protection Control & Accountability programs; a lot of this was funded by Pete Domenici, but under the Nunn-Lugar umbrella. And later when I worked with Senator Domenici, I was involved in this too. These were attempts to bring modern technologies to protection of the weapon materials so that you would move away from dependence on guards and guns to much higher technology approaches to security of their weapons materials. This involved some construction of specialized buildings in which the materials can be stored. The whole point of both of these programs was to prevent leakage of weapons materials and expertise out of Russian and I think, from what I know since, I think that work was generally successful, so that we did manage to prevent leakage of expertise and weapons and materials to the terrorist organizations.
Pete, overall, were your Russian counterparts’ trustworthy partners in this endeavor?
They had strong motivation to work with U.S. scientists and receive paychecks. They were interested in the commercial work that gave them an opportunity to use their technical expertise in an area where they were getting paid. And I remember them as really quite motivated. There was one occasion where I set up a trip for Senator Domenici and several other senators to one of the Russian closed cities, Sarov, which is also known as Arzamas. Some of the groups that we interacted with there were working on detection and treatment of hepatitis. And I remember that Senator Domenici and the other senators were extremely impressed with what they saw in terms of both the work and the motivation and interest of the scientists in these programs. I think they were generally successful.
Pete, were you more concerned overall with the clandestine transport of nuclear materials to terrorist states or to former Soviet nuclear scientists essentially going rogue and selling their experience and availability to these same states?
Well, they’re both important. Now you could argue that weapons scientists selling their expertise to anybody isn’t going to get them very far without weapon materials. So, I could easily make an argument that the protection of the weapon materials was even more important. But I think they were both important and, to the extent I know, both pretty successful. Sig Hecker, the director of Los Alamos, gets tremendous credit for setting up these cooperative programs, known at that time as the lab-to-lab programs, Russian weapons labs to U.S. weapons labs. There’s a very interesting book that Sig authored on the lab-to-lab programs called Doomed to Cooperate. Sig worked very hard with the directors of the weapons labs in Russia to get them to support this set of ideas. Now this was also back in the days when the Russian Federation was pretty desperate for funds, I don’t think that’s the case today. I don’t think much of these programs have continued to the current time. But back in the early nineties they were important, and they may have made a major difference.
Pete, in your subsequent work at deputy associate director for energy and environment, to what extent did this position and the responsibilities you had represent somewhat of a post-Cold War pivot of Los Alamos to more non-defense-oriented research endeavors?
Well, there certainly was that, and my own pivot. I was very interested in moving more into the energy and environment areas, and Los Alamos certainly had very strong programs in those areas. But I was interested in getting more of an appreciation for the non-defense, non-weapons side of the Laboratory, and energy and environment was a good place to develop those skills.
A very broad question, to an outside observer, it might not seem so apparent that Los Alamos would have the kind of brain power and expertise that would be useful in energy and environment endeavors. Can you give a good example to show why that would be the case?
There’s many examples. As one example, at the Nevada Test Site, I mentioned that it was essential to prevent leakage of radioactive gases from the underground experiments, and I believe I would be correct in saying that Los Alamos never had a leak, in contrast to our fellow laboratory. But that required very substantial knowledge in geology of the underground environment. There were many geologists at Los Alamos who were working on this. This fit in very well with the possibility of geothermal research, and it led to the work on the concept of hot dry rock. Hot dry rock is a variation of geothermal, in geothermal one seeks hot water underground, in hot dry rock you search for hot rocks and then inject water which becomes hot. And there are many more places suitable for hot dry rock than traditional geothermal. That was one example of some of the energy and environmental work at Los Alamos. There also was a lot of environmental cleanup at Los Alamos which continues today, and we had many experts on the staff at Los Alamos who contributed in that area. Los Alamos was also quite involved with Yucca Mountain, and I visited it many times. Sandia had the overall responsibility for Yucca Mountain, but Los Alamos was doing a lot of research in addition trying to better understand the geology of the Mountain. These would be some examples in environmental work. In the energy area, Los Alamos had developed some of the earliest reactor safety codes. Not many people know that Los Alamos was, I think it’s fair to say, one of the leaders in developing those early codes, the TRAC codes. And that certainly sparked my interest in nuclear energy in general. Los Alamos also explored hot dry rock as an energy source.
On the environment side, I wonder how closely you worked with the EPA, and on the energy side, I wonder how closely you worked with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
At that time, I didn’t work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the EPA.
So, it was mostly the DOE that was your interface from a federal perspective?
You know, I’m remembering something that I should’ve said, David, a long time ago in our discussion. Let me just mention it. When you ask what am I doing in retirement, in the last year I’ve spend far more time on fusion research than fission research. And there I am working with the NRC and the fusion companies, some of the current progress in fusion is breathtaking, but there’s no regulatory structure for fusion. Some of the companies wanted me to help work with the NRC to develop a framework for regulation of fusion, that is ongoing work and I don’t know exactly where it’s going to come out. But in the last year I spent more time on fusion than I did on fission which is sort of an interesting commentary on the way my career changed. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take you off the subject, but I thought I should mention it because a lot of people were very surprised when they started to see my name show up in fusion research. In the 1970s, Los Alamos was involved in laser fusion research. And in fact, it was my Group, way back when I was doing the X-ray measurements that basically proved that the Los Alamos approach to laser fusion with a long wavelength laser, CO2, would not maintain plasma stability. That led to the demise of the long wavelength laser fusion program at Los Alamos called Antares. Back in those days it was the joke that fusion would always be thirty years away. I’m now at the point where I believe it may be only five years away.
What will that look like? What are some applications when we achieve this capability?
Well, fusion offers a number of attributes that could be superior to fission. We certainly don’t have the long-lived waste products. That’s a big difference. You don’t have mining of uranium and you don’t have enrichment or reprocessing capabilities, which eliminates proliferation concerns. Those would be just some of the attributes, it would be a very long list. But it remains to show that one can obtain energy output greater than energy input from fusion. And that is what some of the companies hope to accomplish within about five years. That’s very different from the international ITER project, which may in 2035, be able to demonstrate this. The private companies think they can do it far sooner within five years, and I think they’re probably right. So, I’m very interested in what’s being done in fusion today. I’ve been mostly working with Commonwealth Fusion Systems, but I’m also helping the Fusion Industry Association as they try to work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
On the question of industrial leadership in this area, your subsequent position, director of industrial partnerships at Los Alamos. First if we could just unpack the title. Who or what is an industrial partner to Los Alamos?
The idea of industrial partnerships was a new concept in the weapons labs. There was strong interest in Washington in using laboratory capabilities to improve national competitiveness. And of course, that’s a challenge when you’re starting with what in many cases is classified weapons work and then seeing what unclassified parts might be extracted that could be of interest for industrial competitiveness. There were a number of cases where this really worked surprisingly well. One of the many things we did while I was in that program was create so-called industrial fellows who would leave Los Alamos for a year and go to work with a company. They would serve as an interface between the company’s research needs and the Laboratory’s research capabilities. The range of programs was very large. The one that I remember in particular was finding ways to put diamond coatings on pistons and piston walls, in the automotive industry, to reduce wear. I don’t think that ever moved into production, but it certainly was going very well. There was a surprising number of ways in which technologies at Los Alamos could be packaged in a way that they were no longer classified but had relevance in other areas.
Pete, what were some of the intellectual property considerations particularly for research that had commercial value that would take place as a result of this partnership between Los Alamos and some of its industrial partners?
There were plenty of such issues on both sides. And yes, that was a concern. Issues had to be very carefully discussed and ironed out by lawyers who understood them. But we were able to work through those issues in many cases, but not all of them. One of the most impressive of such challenges, Sematech, involved Sandia and Livermore more than Los Alamos. Sematech addressed the question of how could laboratory laser technologies be used to produce semiconductor chips with smaller feature sizes By reducing feature sizes, more components can be packed onto each chip. In order to get smaller feature size you have to move into the ultraviolet for exposure of the masks used to create those features on the chips. As far as I know, it was very successful work.
What would be a good example of a partnership that combined the best of both worlds in terms of the resources that Los Alamos had to bear and the kinds of ingenuity or nimbleness that might only be available in the private sector?
Again, you’re going back far in my memory banks, David. Certainly, one of the areas that was a strong interest to industry was high performance computing. The laboratories arguably were and still are some of the world leaders in high performance computing. A number of the partnerships involved how to use the computing capabilities of Los Alamos to solve industrial problems. And some tied in with the CASL program later on. We can talk about CASL if you want to.
Yeah. Please. It’s a great time right now.
CASL stood for Consortium for Advanced Simulation of Light Water Reactors. It was begun in 2010 by Secretary Chu who proposed that it should be possible to involve laboratory, university, and industry scientists working together to solve complex industrial problems. His example was to create mini Bell Labs where a range of experts would work together to solve particular problems. For CASL, the challenge was to apply high performance computing to current reactors. While there was a lot of computational support for the nuclear industry, it tended to be back in the 1970s and eighties that did not involve modern high-performance computing. CASL had many, many successes. It started as a five-year program and was extended to a ten-year program that finished in 2020.
In my view, CASL demonstrated the power of Secretary Chu’s vision. One example of a calculational challenge that the industry was facing was the issue that had the descriptive name of CRUD. And it had to do with the fact that in light water reactors, deposits which initially were largely not understood, would appear on the fuel rods and would insulate the fuel rods so they weren’t as well cooled. This was leading to limitations in the power that could be generated in the reactors. CRUD as I learned later stands for Chalk River Unidentified Deposits. At least I’m told that’s what it stands for, I was never really sure. It’s a very descriptive name in any case. But through the work of CASL there were measurements and detailed calculations of how CRUD built up. With that understanding, CRUD could be modeled and controlled, for example, one approach was to alter the coolant flow within the core so that you had less opportunity for CRUD to build up on the fuel rods. By the end of the CASL program, industry and utilities understood CRUD and could greatly reduce it.
It was in this position that you were a direct report to Sig Hecker. What were your interactions with him? Would you work closely with him on a daily basis? Weekly meetings?
I was a direct report to Sig when I was director for industrial partnerships. This was long before CASL. Sig was very interested in the general challenge of moving laboratory technologies into industry, and he was a very strong supporter of the ongoing work. I mentioned that he deserves a lot of the credit for the lab-to-lab cooperation. He travelled to Russia countless times to work with his counterparts, the lab directors of Russian weapons labs.
You might find it interesting that after Sig retired from Los Alamos, he became director of CISAC, the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford. In the course of his CISAC work, he began to work with young scientists in both U.S. and Russia on aspects of nuclear power and nonproliferation. And this has led to meetings twice a year involving young scientists. Sig typically brings in a few graybeards, I’ve gone to one of these meetings that he set up to work with the students. The time I went they were interested in better understanding of the nuclear accidents that had taken place: TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. They were interested in how to better communicate, particularly involving Fukushima radiation hazards, and to try to get the radiation hazards to be better understood by the average individual in Japan. Those would be examples of some of the work that was done. This would result in papers that were developed by combinations of U.S. and Russian students. And in that particular case a number of those papers were published in the Bulletin of American Scientists. Anyway, Sig has continued his interest in improved relationships and improved understanding between the U.S. and Russia. And his hope is that even though we’re limited today on what we can do on a scientist-to-scientist basis, hopefully these students will be in a position in the future to encourage more interaction between U.S. and Russian scientists.
Pete, what were the circumstances surrounding your decision to leave Los Alamos and to go work for Senator Pete Domenici? Were you looking for a change? Did the Senator recruit you specifically for this work?
I was looking for a change and I had been talking with Sig Hecker about possibilities in Washington. But I also was very well aware of a number of Los Alamos scientists who had gone to various positions in Washington and been very, very disappointed in the way their expertise was applied and the limited relevant skills they were able to bring back to the Laboratory. I wanted to be very sure I didn’t get caught up in that type of a position. It turned out that Senator Domenici had been asking Sig Hecker to suggest names as a science advisor. He’d been doing this for a while and Sig had been quite nervous about doing that because a lab person put in that situation would have to be very careful that they didn’t show bias, for example, in the appropriations process to favor Los Alamos.
In any case, Sig had initially expressed concern to Pete Domenici about providing a science advisor. This changed one day when Senator Domenici was riding the elevator with an individual from Livermore. The Senator was always very happy to talk with staff and he asked him what he was doing. The Senator was then surprised to learn that Livermore provides a science advisor to Senator Reid. Senator Reid and Senator Domenici worked together a lot since they essentially shared leadership of a subcommittee of Appropriations. When Senator Domenici discovered this information, that greatly increased his interest in having Los Alamos provide a science advisor for him, so he again called Sig. I happened to be driving the evening after he had talked with the Senator and Sig asked if I’d be interested in interviewing for the position. Even though I wasn’t sure what the position would entail, I expressed interest in an interview. After my interview, I was asked to come back as his science advisor. That position was a real eye- opener for me in many ways, and it also moved me into opportunities for the NRC and for DOE that I almost certainly wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed at Los Alamos.
The idea there, Pete, is that as expansive as the work at Los Alamos was, it’s necessarily limiting to a degree. And there were opportunities on the Hill for you to work on all kinds of initiatives that simply were not available to you at Los Alamos.
That’s true. I was working on far more than nuclear energy for Senator Domenici. Senator Domenici I think had about fifty staff between his appropriations committee, his authorization committee, and his personal office. I was the only nonlawyer on that staff and I had all kinds of questions come to me from different areas of science. Many of them I knew virtually nothing about, but it was my job to learn in a big hurry. But having spent so long in Los Alamos, I generally knew whom to go to in the lab system - who would have the best knowledge of a particular question. One of the examples of this would be the human genome program. It was while I was with Senator Domenici that the first mapping of the human genome was completed. Senator Domenici had worked to fund that program many years before. But I had to learn very quickly about genomic mapping and the possibilities of that. That’s just one example, but in many different areas of science, I had to suddenly get up to speed and talk with the experts.
Of course, a Senator is also a leader of his or her staff. What was Domenici’s leadership style from your vantage point?
Well, he certainly gave staff considerable flexibility. I’m hesitating because it really depended so much on the area. There were certainly areas where the senator had very strong ideas of exactly what he wanted to have happen. Shortly after I joined, he was in a position to change the committee he was leading. [Domenici] had served six years on the Budget Committee, he had balanced the budget and was very happy to tell people about that. But he was term limited as Chairman of Budget. But he had enough seniority that he could be Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. I was involved fortunately in the discussions with the Senator on what he might accomplish in that. I and a couple of others raised the question of trying to get a rebirth of interest in nuclear energy, including how nuclear energy could prove to be very important to the country. The Senator liked that idea.
Subsequently, as I began to work more with the Senator, if I could propose an initiative that would help advance nuclear energy usually, I would go to him, describe the idea, and he’d say, “Go for it.” And that meant working with staff in other offices and developing a legislative approach. Eventually of course, the members got involved. And many, many initiatives were started that way. But that’s why I’m hesitating because for example in an area like say, creating a petroglyph park in Albuquerque, the senator knew exactly what he wanted and his direction to staff was very specific. But in the case of nuclear energy he was very open to ideas and suggestions and that was a great place for me to be in.
When you would have meetings with him what was your sense of the things in science that were most important to him personally?
Well certainly the rebirth of interest in nuclear energy was very important. He gave a speech at Harvard in 1998, I helped him on that speech in which he described why a rebirth of interest in nuclear energy was important for the country and how he planned to lead an effort to provide more opportunities for nuclear energy. This was during the Clinton administration, and in fiscal year ’98 the budget for research in nuclear energy was zero. Today that budget is about $1.5 billion. The Senator was very concerned about this. So were a few other senators. Larry Craig for example, from Idaho, was very concerned. And this led to a very strong interest in building back an R&D program in nuclear energy.
At that time the Director of the Office of Nuclear Energy DOE was Bill Magwood, The Senator and I worked closely with him as we bounced around ideas for how to get a rebirth of interest in nuclear energy R&D. Many of these ideas evolved into legislation and because the Senator was, depending on the year, either Chair or a Ranking Member of Energy and Natural Resources, he was in a good position to advance legislation. Whether he was Chair or a Ranking Member depended on which party was in the majority that year. But if the Senator was a ranking member and not Chair, then the chair was Senator Bingaman, also from New Mexico. Thus, I had the opportunity then to work very closely with Senator Bingaman. It was very interesting to see the relationship between Senators Bingaman and Domenici. They were in different parties, but the mutual respect was obvious. Thus, the Senator was either Chair or Ranking Member of Energy and Natural Resources and, in addition Energy and Water appropriations. So, he was in the leadership position on both the authorization and the appropriations side at the same time. That is a formula for getting things done and getting them funded. He used those positions in a very expert way.
Pete, in this role you did a lot of drafting of legislation. What are some of the things that you learned from this as a skill to get things done?
Well, first you had to have a credible idea and you had to flesh out the idea to a significant extent. But I quickly discovered that there was an organization in the Senate, Legislative Counsel, whose job was to take ideas for legislation and translate them into legalese. And I worked with them extensively. We also had two other people on the Senator’s staff, Alex Flint and Steve Bell, who shared my focus, band in developing a rebirth of interest. They were also involved with me in the meetings with the Senator where he decided that this would be one of his focus areas. I recall that Alex Flint, for a significant length of time, was the lead clerk on the Appropriations Subcommittee for Energy and Water, later he was the staff chair for Energy and Natural Resources. He was extremely knowledgeable and extremely supportive of moving ahead with nuclear power. Steve Bell was the Senator’s Chief of Staff, and he also was very interested in nuclear.
So, as I came up with ideas, these were two people that I certainly involved. And then there were selected individuals in other offices. Probably the one I spent the most time with was Kristine Svinicki who was until recently Chairman of the NRC. She was the lead staffer for Senator Craig on nuclear issues. She and I worked together on a number of initiatives. And again, it was important to get other ideas and other advice. But depending on the issue I could work with almost anybody. One of the areas I found particularly interesting involved a program for reimbursement of people who have worked in the different weapons production areas who have subsequently contracted certain cancers. The title of the Bill was EEOICPA, which stood for Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. The cosponsor of that bill was Hillary Clinton. And I found myself all of a sudden working with Hillary Clinton’s staff. Here were two senators who certainly had very, very different viewpoints, a senior Republican and a senior Democrat. But between them there was mutual respect. They wanted to work together to make things happen; so, their staff worked together. She had some excellent people on her staff, with whom I enjoyed working; Dan Utech is one name I remember. Dan and I and a few others fleshed out a number of improvements in this legislation; it was a fascinating example of the bipartisanship that doesn’t seem to exist now.
(Laughter) Pete, back at Los Alamos during these years, of course, I assume you felt rather relieved that you were not there during the Wen Ho Lee scandal.
Although, it turned out that Wen Ho Lee’s son might have been on the soccer team that I coached, I don’t remember ever meeting him. But it was probably difficult to be at Los Alamos.
Were you involved legislatively at all in the creation, subsequent creation of the NNSA?
Honestly, not. That was done primarily by Clay Sell and Alex Flint. Clay Sell Alex Flint pretty much developed that idea and I did not have much of anything to do with it.
Just from an outsider’s perspective given your expertise and your experience in these areas, did you think that the creation of the NNSA was a reasonable response?
I was quite worried about it then and I’m still quite worried about it. The logic of having an organization in the DOE that is not controlled by the Secretary to me strains credibility a little bit. You’d find many different opinions in the labs and other places on NNSA. I personally think it would probably be better if NNSA were folded back into the Department of Energy with the Secretary given more responsibility over it. Right now, it’s pretty much an autonomous organization, and that leads to some interesting challenges. But in general, I had left weapons before then, so I really didn’t get involved much and I was perfectly happy not to.
Pete, what was the day like for you on September 11th? Were you on the Hill?
Yes, I was on the Hill. Well, to say we were concerned is putting it mildly. A bunch of us were in the Senator’s office watching what was coming in on TV. There was a debate whether it was safer to stay in his office in the Hart Building, go home, or get down in one of the sub-sub basements. We pretty much stayed there for the first few hours and then we drifted off home. It was certainly a very, very frightening time. But we didn’t have any basis of knowledge as to what was really going, our only information came in on national news.
What about the subsequent anthrax attacks? In your capacity as science advisor being right there in Capitol Hill, were you involved at all in that?
Well, there are better experts than me on anthrax and it led to evacuation of the Senate buildings for a significant time. We moved into other alternative offices to try to continue the support. But I really can’t add much more than that. Eventually it was decided that we could go back into our workstations in the Senate buildings, but that too was a very frightening time.
Now as a science advisor to a senator, is that a political position or a staff position?
It is a staff position?
I don’t even know what a political position to a senator means.
Meaning that if the senator is voted out of office, are you out of a job, that’s what I mean by political.
Yes, I certainly worked at the pleasure of the Senator. And I would’ve been gone when the Senator departed.
And so, what were the circumstances leading to you becoming a professional staff member for Senate Energy and Natural Resources?
I mentioned quite a while ago in this talk, David, that Sig Hecker had concerns about conflict of interest, about having a staff member who was a lab employee and paid by the lab in a position to influence legislation. And there was some concern about how to be sure that I was not favoring Los Alamos in legislation. The Senator didn’t push me to do it, but- but I eventually decided that it was just cleaner for everybody if I retired from Los Alamos and went on the Senate staff. And that’s what I did.
But you remained an advisor to some capacity to Senator Domenici.
My job didn’t change at all - I was doing the same thing, but I was on Senate staff instead of on loan to the Senator, and I was no longer paid by Los Alamos. So, that was a significant change.
What were some of the most important things you were doing at this time with regard to nuclear energy?
Well, there are quite a number of initiatives that were started around this time. One was NP 2010 which was trying to move ahead with so-called passively safe large reactors and there was significant funding provided. This led to the AP1000 being built. Initially we thought it would also lead to a GE ESBWR being built but that fell through. The AP1000 did continue on and of course was also built in China. NP 2010 was intended at the time to be a precursor to what we thought was going to be a nuclear renaissance. This was at a time when natural gas was still very expensive, and we anticipated that there would be substantially more interest in nuclear energy from the utilities. As the price of natural gas began to drop, as fracking started to come in, there was less and less interest in the large nuclear plants. Some of it did continue and that’s the AP1000 plants in Georgia that I hope will be online fairly soon, the Vogtle plants.
These are in no particular order at all, but Another was starting a program on low dose radiation effects. This has been a pet project of mine for a long, long time. The scientific understanding of the effect of low doses of radiation is almost nil, and it really is not understood. What data exists comes from primarily the atomic bomb survivors and then extrapolation from the doses that they received which were very large, in many cases, and instantaneous, essentially, down to microscopic long-term doses that you would have in different environmental situations, this is the so-called linear no threshold model. It assumes that the response of people is perfectly linear with regard to dose. I think you can be pretty sure that people do not respond linearly to much of anything. The linear no threshold model applied in medicine, for example, says that if a hundred aspirins will kill you, then if a hundred people each take one aspirin, one person’s going to die. That’s the kind of absurdity you get into with the linear no threshold model. We started a program within the Department of Energy Office of Science. The Senator funded it. The suggestion was that they use the genomic tools that the Senator had helped to create and try to see to what extent those tools could help towards better understanding of the health effects of low doses of radiation. This program was eventually cancelled by the Department of Energy after the Senator was no longer in a position to protect it. There now is substantial interest on the Hill in bringing it back, and I think it should come back.
As another example, we were starting into work on small modular reactors then. Around 2000, there had been a program called NERI, the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative, which had led to a number of university programs, including one at Oregon State looking at what would eventually become a small modular reactor in the NuScale company, but this pre-dated the formation of NuScale by many years. And we were very interested in the promise of what small modular reactors might allow us to do. So, that would be another example.
Depending on when you ask this question, there was strong interest in nuclear waste as well. Under Secretaries Chu and Moniz, under President Obama, there was the so-called Blue-Ribbon Commission which proposed consent-based siting. Having grown up in Nevada and worked on the Yucca Mountain, I thought that the odds of ever getting Yucca Mountain built were somewhere between zero and zero. I thought consent-based siting was about the only way you could ever effectively move ahead with a repository in this country. That’s what the Blue-Ribbon Commission recommended and some of the Senator’s work was focused on trying to encourage a serious look at consent-based siting. Now before then, because the Senator was working closely with Harry Reid, from Nevada, there was very little funding that ever went to Yucca Mountain because Senator Reid didn’t want any funding to go to Yucca Mountain. And independent of who was Chairman or Ranking Member of Appropriations, those two senators worked together very closely. If Harry Reid really didn’t want something funded, Domenici wasn’t going to push it. So, there was very little funding that went towards Yucca Mountain in many of those earlier years. Which also meant there was very little progress on Yucca Mountain. Again, I’m not a great fan of Yucca Mountain. I think it will be very difficult to ever see Yucca Mountain actually used, and from a geologic standpoint that site is a poor choice. I think that consent-based siting is probably the best way of approaching this. Those are at least some examples and there’d be lots more. There was also a lot more with funding of the universities. I mentioned the NERI program, Nuclear Energy Research Initiative, that largely involved universities. Eventually that morphed into the NEUP, the Nuclear Energy University Program, which was almost entirely focused on university contributions and building a future workforce. Those are at least some examples, David.
I remember during that time there was a lot of excitement over the new hydrogen energy future. Seeing pictures of Arnold Schwarzenegger filling up his Humvee at the hydrogen station in California. What’s your sense of whatever happened to that? Why don’t we seem to be making any forward progress in that sector?
We’re making a lot of forward progress in that sector now. There are at least four utilities in the U.S. that now have programs to explore generation of hydrogen using nuclear power usually coupled with renewables. And one of the things that I pushed a lot when I was there as the assistant secretary was trying to find ways for renewables and nuclear to work together and stop fighting over “who was better.” Production of hydrogen, clean production of hydrogen, is one of the best examples of that. It’s not just in the U.S. too, EDF in France now has a subsidiary working on the use of nuclear power to produce hydrogen. However, you asked the question about why wasn’t there interest in hydrogen in those earlier days. I honestly don’t know, but there certainly wasn’t within the Bush Administration. There was a very interesting example though, when a company showed up at the Senate with a hydrogen powered vehicle, and they invited the Senator to come down and drive it, and of course, they wanted pictures of the Senator driving that car. So, we tramped down and looked at this car, which was very nice. Now the Senator used to be a high school chemistry teacher and he said, “Where’s the hydrogen?” They said, “It’s under your driver’s seat in a tank at 10,000 psi.” And he wouldn’t drive that car. They did take pictures of him in the car, but those pictures were taken in the parking lot just sitting in the car. As a former chemistry teacher, he knew that hydrogen can explode.
Now there’s a lot of good ideas on hydrogen, certainly for automotive use, but also in industrial use. For example, the steel industry would be one example, to replace the large amounts of coke that are burned in blast furnaces. I think hydrogen has a real future. And exactly how long it will take, I don’t know. It’s a great example of a way that nuclear and renewables can work together, and to me, that is absolutely essential as we look into the future for the country. Renewables are variable. And it will at least be a challenge, a tremendous challenge, if you try to build a carbon-free grid solely with variable renewables and then try to fill in gaps in power from renewables with batteries - I just don’t think it’s possible. You can fill in with batteries for minutes or maybe even hours, but you sure can’t fill in with batteries for months, and that will be essential for a resilient grid. If you’re truly going to have a robust grid that’s clean, you’ve must have a capability to have clean energy quite separate from renewables for long periods of time, and nuclear can do that.
So, at least in my mind, and I guess I’ve gotten off your subject, I think substantial amounts of renewables are very important for the country. I think you can probably go to numbers like eighty percent renewables. But I don’t think you’ll ever get to one hundred percent in an economic way, and I think you’ve got to have clean baseload power for the remainder of that time. Hydrogen is ideal as an energy storage system, because the ways that you make hydrogen by electrolysis lend themselves very well to using whatever source of electricity shows up. If you’ve got lots of extra power from renewables, okay, then use it. But your nuclear plant would always be running too. So, you’d have extra nuclear energy in this case and lots of renewables, you’d dump all the excess energy into hydrogen. If you need more power on the grid for a while, you could use the renewables or nuclear. It doesn’t really matter, either way it’s clean power. If you don’t need all the nuclear power on the grid, you dump that into the hydrogen production. So, I see hydrogen as a very, very good way of essentially energy storage. And I think it’ll be very important from that standpoint. I’m sorry, that was a very long answer.
No. That’s good. That’s good. I’m glad to hear-
I think it will be very, very important to the country as we look into the future. And I’m very convinced that you’re not going get to one hundred percent renewables with any system at reasonable costs.
Pete, that’s great PR for hydrogen because you know, it’s viability as you discuss it really doesn’t accord with the fact that it’s really not in people’s minds. People are not really talking and thinking about hydrogen. At least from a public relations perspective.
David, but if you’re a nuclear utility, I know Xcel, Arizona Public Service, Exelon, and Energy Harbor have demonstration projects looking at hydrogen production. Some of them are looking at hydrogen production to use on their reactor site, hydrogen is used to cool bearings in the large turbines for example. But some of them are looking at way beyond that and generating hydrogen cleanly for the market. I think it’s going to be a winner.
Pete, a kind of broad question regarding your work on nuclear nonproliferation during your years on the Hill. To what extent did that work allow you an opportunity to check back in with progress in Russia and the newly independent states that you were doing ten to fifteen years earlier at Los Alamos?
Well, I mentioned the ISTC. And later on, there were other initiatives. There was the Nuclear Cities Initiative and Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention. These were programs that Senator Domenici started and funded. They were all designed to, in various ways, improve both the MPC&A, Material Production, Control, & Accounting of materials and provide appropriate non-weapons employment for weapons scientists at the Russian weapons labs. And, yes, it did give me a number of opportunities to check back in.
How much interaction did you have with the NRC before you were named commissioner?
Well, certainly some, but not a tremendous amount. For example, I mentioned working with Kristine Svinicki when she was with Senator Craig, she and I developed legislation for the so-called NGNP, Next Generation Nuclear Plant, that was going to be a high temperature helium-cooled reactor, which offered a number of interesting potential safety features. We included in that legislation, not only funding for NGNP within DOE, but also funding for the NRC to begin work on how they would license the NGNP if it came to fruition. So, that would be at least one example.
Somewhat later in time as we moved ahead with the small modular reactors, we created a licensing support program for them, and that also had funding that went to the NRC along with funding with the industry and the labs. But it wasn’t really until I was at DOE, that I began to try to work more closely with the NRC. In my time at the NRC, I had come to realize how small the research budgets actually are at the NRC, and they were getting smaller. I thought it was very important in the DOE programs, which had a lot more money than the NRC did, to explore ways in which we could support research that would be necessary, not only perhaps to the labs or the industry, but also to the NRC. Now some people tried to argue that DOE can’t fund the NRC or you’re buying them and losing regulatory independence. We made very sure that wasn’t the case. If DOE research was being used potentially by the NRC, we made sure that the quality assurance of that work was impeccable, and NRC can use data from anyplace as long as they can be sure of its pedigree, and by having great confidence in the quality assurance we could assure we could accomplish that. I met regularly with the NRC chairman when I was at DOE, and we tried to find ways that we could work together to support research needs of both DOE and NRC.
To what extent did the basic tension at the NRC between wanting to ensure safer civilian nuclear energy and the nuclear energy industry that might push back on that regulation, to what extent did that fundamental tension really shape everything that you were involved with at the NRC?
I think we all recognized the tension, and we recognized the vital role that the NRC was playing. So, we certainly listened to industry’s concerns at the NRC, but didn’t always accept them. I believed the way these kinds of interactions were handled was very appropriate. When I was at the NRC, I would also talk to the various groups of anti-nukes just as I talked with industry. Then I would form my own opinions. That I think is the important aspect of the NRC, that their driver is solely on safety, and each of the Commissioners recognizes that. So, yes, there was that tension. I felt it. But I don’t think it influenced what I did.
Is the NRC involved at all in protecting civilian nuclear reactors from terrorist attacks, for example?
Yes, very much so.
This was an issue obviously in the post-9/11 world.
Very much so.
So, what kinds of things could the NRC do to ensure that the reactors would be as safe as possible from these kinds of attacks?
I can’t go very far into that. But it is public knowledge that the NRC increased the number and validity of so-called force on force attacks against the plants, and these were done on a regular basis. They replicated reality to very, very high levels. In these attacks, there would be adversary groups that would try to penetrate a plant and it was the job of the guard force to be sure that they didn’t succeed. These force-on-force exercises were, I think, very important in improving the protective capability for each of the plants. In addition, the number of guards were increased. I just don’t think I should go any further, but there were other things that were done. But now as you look at the newer plants, for example the SMRs, they are starting with a blank sheet of paper. Now you can do some really intelligent things with regard to protection against terrorists. With the existing plants you were limited by the design of the existing plant. It wasn’t designed with terrorism in mind. The NRC and industry have worked extensively to develop approaches that would make it exceedingly difficult for a terrorist to succeed. But most of that stuff is very classified.
Pete, as Commissioner of the NRC, of course the realm of your authority is in regulation and not advocacy. But I wonder if implicitly if the NRC is doing what it’s supposed to do with increased public and legislative support for new nuclear programs?
The NRC certainly is not involved in advocacy. As there are new designs coming in, the companies can work with the NRC to better understand how to protect the plants. But I don’t see that as advocacy, I see that more as insuring that the plants are as well protected as possible. I think any Commissioner at the NRC would be extremely concerned with suggestions that they’re advocating for a particular design, because I don’t think they do that.
Pete, what was your entrée to the DOE with the incoming Obama administration?
You mean how did I end up there? Well, that was kind of funny. My term at the NRC was ending. I was the first Commissioner whose term ended once President Obama came in. Traditionally the President would want to have three members representing his own party, so. I was very sure that I would not be extended at the NRC and indeed I wasn’t. So, I thought I was retired. In the meantime, Pete Miller was nominated for the Assistant Secretary position. Apparently, Pete, in his discussions with the secretary and others, had said that he would come in only if I was his deputy. Pete and I worked together at Los Alamos and there’s a lot of respect there. But Pete has said publicly that he took the job only with the understanding that I would be his deputy or Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary or PDAS. So, I came in first as a consultant and became PDAS. Now what I didn’t know, was that Pete wasn’t going to stay there very long. I was quite surprised when Pete decided that he was leaving the DOE, which generally would mean that the PDAS would become the Acting Secretary. But I still had no idea if I’d be nominated. At that time Secretary Chu was still Secretary and certainly he and I talked about the Assistant Secretary role. I don’t know all that went into my being nominated, but I was nominated and confirmed. I thought it was quite a tribute to President Obama, that he was willing to put someone like me in that position. I’d come in working for a senior Republican, Senator Domenici, and I had taken a Republican slot on the NRC. So, I was pretty well labeled as a Republican. But apparently the Obama team decided to look at credentials and capability instead of parties, and I give them a lot of credit for that. In any case, I was nominated and confirmed. And as you say, the rest is history.
Pete, to what extent was Obama’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and overall climate change policy? To what extent did that include an embrace of nuclear energy and consequently to what extent did that give you more flexibility to do the things that you wanted to do?
It was very important. Of course, the Secretaries that President Obama nominated Steve Chu and then when he left, Ernie Moniz, these are people who have thoroughly studied the climate issues. I think they would both agree with me that if you’re going to move towards a completely clean system you need clean baseload power. Now it doesn’t have to be nuclear. If you can get carbon capture working economically and effectively, that can be clean baseload power - to my knowledge we’re not there yet. And to my knowledge, really the only option you have today for clean baseload power, that you know how to build and run economically, is nuclear. Now nuclear still has that challenge that it costs too much, and there’s a lot of effort going on to try to reduce those costs. But still I think it’s fair to say that looking today for clean baseload power, nuclear is about the only game in town. You can use hydro to some extent, but hydro can be impacted by drought conditions, and, it doesn’t have the certainty that nuclear does. So, in any case, President Obama, I believe, was strongly interested in nuclear energy not because he necessarily loved nuclear, but he recognized that for a clean system or clean energy, he needed nuclear. I had a number of interactions with the President while I was at DOE, and I was very impressed with his knowledge of things nuclear.
What were some of the most important technological advances in RD&D that were relevant for your portfolio?
Well, the small modular reactors were extremely important. Of course, we, NuScale after it was selected and DOE, were working towards certification by the NRC of the NuScale SMR. After their selection, DOE had invested a lot of money into that SMR. I believe I was the Assistant secretary when we made the decision to fund NuScale as one of the two winners of the competition on the SMRs. The other winner was BWXT with their so-called mPower design. In any case, there’s a lot of history here. Both of those were funded, but BWXT in their wisdom called me one day to say they were not going ahead with the project. Needless to say, I was not very happy. By then BWXT had received well over one hundred million dollars in government funding. Their view had become that it would take too long to realize a profit from the SMRs. That’s probably true, but that’s why we had set up a cost shared arrangement with substantial government funding in the first place. It would’ve been over $200 million to both BWXT and NuScale. In any case, BWXT dropped out, and NuScale continued. NuScale now has certification from the NRC; the first SMR to have that certification. Now it remains to be seen if we can get the SMRs deployed. I pray that happens, because I think the SMRs can be extremely important as we look into the future of nuclear power, because they offer significant steps forward in safety. That’s certainly one area of research on my watch and another involved the nuclear waste issue. While I was there, we tried multiple times to get consent-based siting through Congress. We never succeeded. Consent-based siting really never moved ahead even though the Blue-Ribbon Commission had recommended it, and that was a tremendous disappointment to me. As I said earlier, I think consent-based siting is essential.
Accident Tolerant Fuels were another area that I pushed very hard, influenced to some extent by the Fukushima disaster. I was involved in trying to help Japan after Fukushima, I think I got to Japan four days after the accident. But that experience increased my interest in so-called accident tolerant fuels, where we already had been some limited work in that area - but we dramatically expanded it. Now there are several designs for accident tolerant fuels or ATF. And by ATF we mean fuels that are far less susceptible to overheating and would generate less or no hydrogen if they were overheated. And of course, it was the tsunami coupled with the hydrogen explosions at Fukushima that caused the most extensive damage at the reactor site. The fact that the current fuels generate hydrogen when overheated is certainly very well known. But we hadn’t really asked the question: how could you modify the design of the fuel so that you would generate far less hydrogen or generate it at a much later time? And that was the basis for the accident tolerant fuels. I don’t know if there’s three or four designs now of the accident tolerant fuels that have been approved by the NRC to at least be put in as test examples to operating reactors. These are so-called lead test assemblies. They’re not whole cores, but they’re enough to get concrete data on how these accident tolerant fuels behave in reactors. And then, there’s been a tremendous amount of work in understanding how the accident tolerant fuels behave under different accident conditions. I think the ATF will have a real future. I think it’s very likely that companies will go with ATF, and the system will be safer because of that.
Pete, rightly or wrongly, is your sense overall in Washington that the Fukushima disaster was understood to be a uniquely Japanese problem? Or did it really serve as a wake-up call that these problems could happen elsewhere including the United States?
Well, I think in most ways it’s a uniquely Japanese problem. And I could go as far into that as you want. The Japanese had plenty of warnings that there could be humongous tsunamis in that region. It was not a surprise when that tsunami showed up. They had not built their seawalls anywhere near high enough even though there were groups at some of the universities pointing out that those seawalls would not stop a tsunami in that region. There’s no place in the United States, certainly to my knowledge, that would be prone to tsunamis like that in Japan. However, there were lessons learned in Fukushima that applied to U.S. industry as well. The difficulty that the Japanese had in restoring power and cooling, those were lessons that have been important here. They’ve led to substantial improvements in the types of emergency equipment that are required at every site. And industry has now developed the so-called FLEX system in which, at two locations around the country, they have stored a large number of generators and pumps all of which can be run without electricity. They can get to any place in the country within twenty-four hours. So, I think there’s no question that, yes, the U.S. plants are safer because of lessons from Fukushima. I don’t think it changes the fact that the details of Fukushima were uniquely Japanese, but there were lessons for everyone. And I think the NRC properly, because I was gone by then, properly asked what those lessons were and how they can be applied in the United States. And they’ve gone ahead and done it.
Pete, the transition from Steve Chu to Ernie Moniz as Energy Secretary. I wonder if the fact that Ernie is a nuclear physicist was particularly advantageous for you in terms of your dealings with him?
It certainly didn’t hurt. Ernie is extremely knowledgeable in nuclear energy, and Ernie was extremely skilled in dealing with Congress.
Did you work with him at all in the JCPOA?
No. That was done through the weapons side of DOE and the nonproliferation side. So, no, I didn’t work with him on that vital project. I did know Ernie from some of his work at Los Alamos. He had been an advisor to some of the divisions at Los Alamos. So, I’d interacted with him at least some there. And I’d had many interactions with MIT over the years, and Ernie was usually in the middle of those too.
Was your initial intention to stay on through the end of Obama’s second term?
Not really. I don’t know that I had a well-formed intention. But when I retired, I was seventy-two years old. I had lots of grandkids. So, I had good reasons for thinking that it was time to hand the reins to someone else since I put in a fair number of years in the position. I really thought that it was time to have someone else come in. I was extremely supportive of John Kotek coming in, I thought John Kotek was a phenomenal choice. I had no qualms about handing the reins over to John Kotek. So that figured in my decision too. John was nominated, but he wasn’t confirmed. Still, I did not go into the job with the idea that I’d retire in 2015, but it was probably fortuitous that I did. Just as a side comment, I had arranged for my retirement in the end of June of 2015. In January of 2015 I was diagnosed with thymoma cancer and was out of work for three months. It took a lot out of me, that probably also would’ve encouraged me to look towards retirement, but I’d already made the decision. So, it was a fortuitous decision with fortuitous timing. But I was ready to retire, and very ready to hand the reins over to the younger generation.
Pete, because so many of your initiatives at the Department of Energy are structural, they take a long time to see to fruition, to completion. What were some of the things that you were most satisfied with in terms of contributions in the short term? And what are some of the things where you feel like you helped to put in motion things about energy policy that will confer benefits for a generation if not more to come?
I think that several initiatives will provide benefits in both the short and long terms, certainly the ATF and SMRs will. I supported some of the advanced reactor, non-light water reactor, work. Now that’s been considerably expanded by Rita Baranwal, which I think is very positive. It’ll be very interesting to see how the non-light water reactors fare as they go through NRC evaluation and undergo additional testing. But certainly, I supported a lot of research in the non-light water reactors, but I didn’t move ahead with deployment the way Rita has and I’m very happy that she’s done that. Another area that I think was vital is the NEUP program, the Nuclear Energy University Partnerships. In that program we set aside twenty percent of the R&D budget of the office for universities. And we structured a peer review program to be sure that we got the best ideas. Initially it was just single university programs, single PIs. But after a while, after a few years, we decided that we ought to look at opportunities for multiple universities to work together. And so, we created another subset of NEUP that would look at much larger problems than you could do with a single PI. And I think that’s worked very, very well too. That these larger programs—they vary in size, but they tend to be in the order of two to three million dollars, whereas a single PI project might be $300-500K. They will involve multiple universities.
Now all the NEUP programs have funding guaranteed for three years. That was another thing that we did that I think was very important - we set aside the funding for all three years upfront, which was a nice way of ensuring that it would happen. But I was and I am very interested in the future workforce. And I think a strong university program is the best way of assuring that we do have that workforce in the future. So, those were only some areas. I’m sure I could think of more but those are ones that I’m very proud of.
The flipside of that question: opportunities lost. Had the Obama administration encountered less resistance on Capitol Hill you know, across the board, but with energy policy in particular, what are some examples of things that you wished got farther along if not for intransigence up on the Hill?
I’ll start with consent-based siting a repository. There are examples around the world where used fuel repositories are moving ahead, but not in the United States. The ones that are succeeding, Finland, Sweden, and France, as well as Switzerland that probably will be next, those were all consent-based programs. And in addition, I think I would be correct in saying they were all led by industry, which was another recommendation of the Blue-Ribbon Commission. The BRC suggested a careful look at some sort of a federal corporation, maybe something like TVA, but there are many ways this could be done. The most important attribute of such management systems would be to get the government out of the used fuel repository program. because as long as it’s embedded in the government, it’s subject to the politics du jour. And politics du jour haven’t gotten us anywhere. Of course, there’s no technical issue with storing HLW in a repository and it’s also safe where it is. Some groups suggest that the fuel could just continue to be stored, for maybe twenty years, at existing reactors I don’t think that’s the right answer. There are certainly groups which are genuinely concerned about the amount of used fuel at each of the reactor sites around the country. And I think we need to be showing progress to move away from that approach. Now interim storage is one approach and there are groups in Texas and New Mexico that are trying to work towards interim storage. In both cases they’re getting opposition from state groups, and I don’t have any idea how that’s issue will be resolved, but I do think interim storage is an important step.
However, it is interim, just like the word says. And that’s not the answer that we need in this country. I think we have to move towards permanent repositories. But I think we have to do it on a consent basis to achieve success. I’m no geologist, but from what little I know, I think we should look very, very carefully at salt deposits, they offer some very interesting advantages for long term repositories, and I think they will be looked at carefully. This is probably the area I most regret the failure to make progress- that I did not succeed in moving the ball really at all on management of used fuel. And I think it’s essential that we do so.
Pete, I’m sure your diagnosis was part of the factor of considerations, but by 2015 were you ready to move out of Washington, D.C.? Was that part of it as well?
If I'd known about my cancer earlier, I would’ve been more anxious. I’ve got three sons and seven grandchildren, and I need time with them, they’re either in Colorado or New Mexico. I needed to be much closer to them, because I just wasn’t getting to see them very often.
In terms of service, in terms of advisory work, what has been some of the most intellectually and even politically satisfying work you’ve done in your retirement life as a consultant?
Oh, boy, that’s a difficult question. I’ve been on the technical advisory board for NuScale. I’m very impressed with what NuScale has accomplished and now I want to see it deployed. I’m helping on fusion regulation now, and I’ve proposed some approaches that are a little different from what people may have originally thought. It remains to be seen if the NRC will accept them, but I’m very hopeful that they will.
My work in Japan with the Institute for Energy and Economics of Japan has been fascinating. I’ve written a number of papers that have been published in Japan as I’ve contributed to that group. And as you may know, Japan basically has no indigenous energy supply, ninety-eight percent of their total energy is imported and that’s not a very healthy situation. There could be significant renewables there, but I don’t see an alternative to significant nuclear in Japan. Given the population density in Japan, it’s very hard to see how you’re going to have gigantic wind or solar farms or anything that takes up large amounts of space. But you’ve must convince the population that another Fukushima won’t happen. In each of the papers I’ve written recently I’ve tried to suggest that they look very carefully at the SMRs, because they bring a whole lot of attributes that they just can’t get with the large plants. The SMRs can be air cooled, that means you don’t have to site them on the coast. And when, you don’t have to have them connected to a body of water, they’re immune from tsunamis, plus they can be extremely well seismically hardened. Passive safety makes them extremely resistant to any sort of an accident. The NuScale design uses no pumps, everything is gravity cooled by convective cooling. Thus, you don’t have to worry about your pumps failing. Some of the papers I’ve written have suggested that Japan really needs to look more carefully at the SMRs, which. I think have a chance to changing public opinion in Japan. Probably the biggest thing you can do is simply site them away from the coast to get them away from potential tsunamis.
Pete, now that we’ve brought the narrative right up to the present, I’d like to ask for the last part of our talk one really broad retrospective question about your long-held expertise in nuclear policy, national policy. And then we’ll end looking to the future. And so the question looking back all the way to Los Alamos is what are or what have you found to be some of the most important metrics for gaining an overall sense of whether U.S. nuclear policy, civilian nuclear energy policy, is on the right track or the wrong track? What are those metrics that are most valuable to you in terms of carbon emissions, in terms of accidents avoided, in terms of jobs in this sector? What are those basic metrics that allow you to say we’re on the right track or maybe we’re not?
I’ve already said that I truly believe that if we’re serious about a carbon-free energy system in the country, I think nuclear has to be part of it. I think we’re making good progress in that area, especially if the SMRs are deployed. And we’ll be surely hurt if the SMRs are not deployed. I think between the SMRs and the accident tolerant fuels, we’ve got a real chance for nuclear to make the kind of contribution that the country needs. They still have the challenge of economics, and it remains to be seen if the nuclear plants can come down in cost while maintaining safety to the point where they’re more cost competitive. Right now, natural gas is cheap, but natural gas is not carbon free.
A sort of question implicit in there. When you look at the crisis that happened in Texas in January, is your reaction there well, of course something like that happens because nuclear really isn’t part of the scenario there? Is that sort of one of those responses that you might have?
Well, there were so many things wrong in Texas that I don’t even know where to start. For one thing, when Texas has the ERCOT system that is completely isolated from all the other plants in the country, it means you can’t get power in there to help in a problem because the grids are not synchronized. You cannot bring power in from outside Texas. To me that is really wrong, but, if Texas wants to be independent, to me, their recent problem is just totally predictable. In addition, the whole business of not winterizing their fleet whether it’s natural gas or renewables amazes me. Sooner or later, it’s going to get really cold and then you have problems (laughter). To me what is going on in Texas is about as silly as what’s going on in Japan. Japan has two different grids; one is fifty cycle, one is sixty cycle, and each one covers half of the country. So again, you cannot get power back and forth, at least not in any simple way, between those two sides of the country. To me that makes no sense. If you want to have a robust, resilient system you need to have multiple opportunities to get power into your system. Texas didn’t want to do that. I don’t know the history in Japan, the issue goes way back. But the 50 and 60 cycle division is not the way to generate a resilient system. And the isolated system to Texas is not exactly a resilient system, and boy, did they prove it.
Pete, last question. Looking to the future. Of course, we’re not in the prediction business, but because you’ve spent so much time thinking about these issues I wonder if you have a pretty well-defined concept of what success in the field would look like for you? In other words, how many years, how much reactors, and how much reliance on nuclear energy all together where you would say, “I’m satisfied with where the United States is on these issues.” What would that look like and how long would it take to get there?
There’s a number of groups that have been looking at that question trying to estimate how long it would take either to build lots of SMRs or more of the gigawatt plants. Personally, I think we should go with the SMRs. But that will be up to the utilities. I already mentioned that there’s no question in my mind that we need significant renewables. I don’t know what the correct number is for renewables, I’d start with eighty-percent renewables. But maybe it’s seventy percent, maybe it’s eighty-five percent, I don’t know. It’s somewhere in that range and it probably will differ in different parts of the country too. But I don’t think it makes sense to talk about one hundred percent renewables, I think people are kidding themselves when they do that. Maybe you could possibly do it with a tremendous expansion in transmission lines across the country, but transmission lines aren’t exactly popular either. In principle maybe you could get enough transmission from places where the sun is shining to places where it isn’t, but frankly there’s disasters that can happen where the whole country could be dark. We’ve certainly seen volcanic explosions in the history of mankind that have completely changed weather patterns and darkened essentially the world.
To me you’ve got to have significant, clean baseload power, and until somebody comes up with another way of doing it, I think it has to be nuclear. Maybe fusion will come along. It looks promising and it’s got fabulous attributes, so, it could be interesting or maybe carbon capture will come along, but these options are not here now. I simply don’t know what you can do today other than nuclear, and I vote for nuclear with SMRs, to try to provide for the long-term resiliency that our grid needs. That would be my hope.
Pete, it’s been tremendous talking to you. I’m so glad we were able to do this and that I had the opportunity to learn from all of your perspective and insight over the course of your career. I’m so happy we were able to do this. Thank you so much.