As the Senate debates adding incentives for the nuclear power industry to a climate bill, where does research on the safety, cleanliness and cost of reactors stand? During today's OnPoint, retired Navy Vice Adm. John Grossenbacher, director of the Idaho National Laboratory and president of Battelle Energy Alliance, discusses his lab's work on nuclear power research under the Obama administration. He discusses the importance of international partnerships in addressing energy challenges and gives his take on the Senate's climate legislation.
Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Vice Adm. John Grossenbacher, director of the Idaho National Laboratory and president of Battelle Energy Alliance. Vice Admiral, thank you for coming on the show.
John Grossenbacher: It's my pleasure, Monica.
Monica Trauzzi: Idaho National Lab is a science and engineering lab focused on meeting the country's environment, energy, nuclear power and national security needs. The Obama administration has faced some criticism regarding its outlook on the use of nuclear. How has your lab's focus or mission changed with the Obama administration in place?
John Grossenbacher: Well, I think the administration has made it clear that nuclear energy is going to be an important component of the U.S. energy future for a number of reasons and very importantly to meet our climate change objectives, so the necessity of nuclear energy being part of our mix is clear. In terms of the focus of our work, I mean fundamentally it's dictated by the technology in the state of the art in the technology. So ensuring that the reactors we have in operation today that can continue operation far into the future, developing the next generation of reactors and reactor technologies and then the fuel cycle issues and the issues of used nuclear fuel, what some people call waste, I call used nuclear fuel, those issues are all on the table and being actively worked at the lab.
Monica Trauzzi: How close are we to meeting those challenges that you just listed?
John Grossenbacher: Well, you know some of those I mean they continue. Reactor technologies will continue to evolve and fuel cycle, you know the nuclear fuel cycle and how we take uranium and use it. We're going to be using uranium as a source of energy for hundreds and hundreds of years, so that's going to continue evolve with the state of the art of technology. There's no solution, it's just an evolutionary process and I think it continues to move forward and move forward well. You know, it's a tough business. I mean it's tough engineering and science, but that's kind of why we like it and it's important to the energy future of the country and the world.
Monica Trauzzi: Is there a particular signal that you're looking for from DOE regarding research and development and your lab's future plans?
John Grossenbacher: No, I think it's fair to say I mean that signal has been sent and that is nuclear energy is important. The details of the future of the fuel cycle, you know the blue ribbon panel proposal relative to the nuclear fuel cycle and used nuclear fuel I think is going to be extremely important. The department just recently issued what's called a funding opportunity announcement, but it's really an industry come to the table about this next generation reactor technology and let's see if we can move forward with it and I think those are all positive signs.
Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned the waste issue.
John Grossenbacher: Yes.
Monica Trauzzi: That's faced a lot of criticism, a lot of debate, certainly now with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in place. He opposes Yucca Mountain. Could debates like that derail your efforts or sort of make it more difficult for you to bring the research and development forward?
John Grossenbacher: Well, you know, this is America. I mean this is a democracy and so these issues have things like where you site a radioactive waste repository or a used fuel repository are necessarily, I think, going to be political. They're going to be debated and that's fine. That's the way our system works. In terms of the technology I think that debate can and should demand what do we know and what don't we know and what do we think about the state of this technology, how we should handle this material, what is the best thing to do? And it's not as if there are black-and-white answers, but I think the ongoing debate encourages the right kind of work and the hard questions, so I think that's appropriate.
Monica Trauzzi: How important is the next decade or so in terms of demonstrating the viability of the technology so that it plays a major role and isn't overlooked in favor of maybe natural gas in the electricity sector?
John Grossenbacher: Well, broadly, in terms of nuclear energy, I think if nuclear energy is treated rationally and I think it has been irrationally demonized for many years, if it's treated rationally and allowed to compete it will compete well. Any large-scale energy generation has costs, risks, and environmental impacts associated with it. There is no free lunch, they're just different. Renewables are different. They have costs, risks, and environmental impacts. Nuclear is different. I think if judged in an unbiased, in an objective way the nuclear energy will compete extremely well because it doesn't emit carbon dioxide, because it has proven itself to be a safe technology with the right disciplines in place and an excellent source of baseload power and we've got to have baseload power in our electrical distribution system. So I think nuclear energy will compete well.
Monica Trauzzi: Tell us a bit about some of the core projects that your lab is working on currently.
John Grossenbacher: Well, first and foremost, it's what are the things we ought to be working on to take the reactors that are operating today, 104 reactors in United States, what can industry do to ensure their future productivity, viability, underwrite their future safety? You know, they've been licensed originally to 40 years. They're being extended to 60. What about 80? So how do we do that and be confident in the materials and how they perform? We're doing that kind of work. What kind of reactors do we think we're going to want to field that are different from the ones we have today, you know, 30, 40, 50 years from now when we're always pushing the envelope on reactor technology. And then the third area is the fuel cycle and what choices do we have? There are different paths being pursued around the world. Our choice initially was take used fuel from reactors and put it in Yucca Mountain. Well, there are other choices. What does technology allow us to do? And I think the questions always with technology are can you do it? Does the science and math work? And then do you want to? Do the economics work? Do the other factors work? So we're engaged in all of those, next reactor technologies, reactor after next, sustaining what we have now, and then the broad issue of the nuclear fuel cycle. And, again, I think the context of time is very important. We're going to be using nuclear energy as a source of energy for hundreds and hundreds of years and we don't typically think that way about some of these issues I think.
Monica Trauzzi: Final question here. Is this as much about finding a global solution or is this really a country by country challenge?
John Grossenbacher: Very good question and I think energy in general is a global issue and it has elements country by country, but I think we are remiss in thinking if we can meet our challenges in the United States that somehow the challenges throughout the world have been met. I mean there are millions and millions of people that don't have their basic needs met, their basic energy needs, and we humans have chosen a pretty energy dense existence with a lot of benefits associated with that. Certainly, we shouldn't be wasteful. Certainly, we should conserve and use our energy wisely, but we use energy to great advantage and enhancement of human life, medical care, many of the things we take for granted in our quality of life. I think it's an aspiration of everyone in the world to have those kinds of opportunities and I think that's appropriate. So, I do think it's a global issue. I do think we have an important leadership role to play in it and it needs to be approached that way. It's not just what happens inside the borders of the United States.
Monica Trauzzi: All right, we'll end it right there on that note. Thank you for coming on the show.
John Grossenbacher: No, thank you, my pleasure.
Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.
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