Energy Policy

Argonne Lab Director Rosner talks R&D funding, nuclear waste, fuel cells, more

Will DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman boost research funding? What's the government doing to effectively address spent nuclear fuel? And what's the timeline for developing practical, marketable hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles with the money available? On today's OnPoint, Robert Rosner, director of the Argonne National Laboratory, talks about reversing the decline in federal spending on basic R&D and what it means for energy and technology development


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining me right now is Dr. Robert Rosner, director of Argonne National Laboratory. Also with me is reporter Ben Geman with E&E Daily and Greenwire. Dr. Rosner, thanks a lot for being here today.

Robert Rosner: I'm very glad, very pleased to be here. Thank you very much for inviting me.

Brian Stempeck: No problem. I want to start with a question about nuclear power. It's really on the top of a lot of agendas right now. In the Senate they're talking about a climate change amendment to the energy bill next week from John McCain, which might include some nuclear provisions. One thing your lab works on is what to do with the spent fuel from reactors. Tell us a little bit about that work and how nuclear is progressing in the future?

Robert Rosner: That's actually a very interesting question. Traditionally the issue with spent fuel has been it comes out of the reactor and then, right now, it basically goes into repositories that are situated directly next to the power plants that have produced the waste. The plan has been, going back through a number of years, to then take that eventually and repackage it and bring it to Yucca Mountain.

Brian Stempeck: Right.

Robert Rosner: OK. Now one of the issues at Yucca Mountain is of course it has limited capacity, No. 1, and No. 2, is there's obviously opposition in Nevada, I think we've noticed it.

Brian Stempeck: Sure.

Robert Rosner: And third is the general question of whether or not that strategy of basically taking the fuel that's directly produced by the presently existing plants and simply without any further processing to bring it to Yucca Mountain, whether that's in fact a good strategy. So one of the things that Argonne has been taking a very careful look at is what you might call closing the fuel cycle. Taking out from the existing waste stream those materials that in fact are the ones that are most, cause most concern, they're the most reactive elements, the so-called actinides, transuranic elements, separating them from the waste stream and then what's left is material that, in terms of its radioactive level, is not too dissimilar from the material that actually went into the reactors in the first place.

Brian Stempeck: So what does this mean for the future of nuclear power? As people are talking about maybe building a new plant, in the next few years --

Robert Rosner: Right.

Brian Stempeck: Getting more financial incentives for these plants, are we able to avoid some of the problems that we're dealing with Yucca Mountain right now?

Robert Rosner: Well the idea, in fact, is that Yucca Mountain becomes a repository in which the stuff that you put in has a, first of all, a much smaller volume, is much less radioactive, produces much less heat and contains much fewer toxic materials, if not any toxic materials. So the idea is that, what you do with that repository is a much more benign kind of thing than the present plans. So that addresses, in a sense, both the political problems and health concern problems and the general worries that folks have about the repository.

Ben Geman: I wanted to ask you actually about a related topic, which is that the DOE funding bill recently passed by the House, report language includes instructions to the department to set up a spent fuel reprocessing program, actually pretty soon. I believe it would launch in 2007.

Robert Rosner: Right.

Ben Geman: Now many people have raised some pretty significant proliferation concerns about that. Can you address that? I mean right now with current reprocessing technologies, can it be done in a way that doesn't create these proliferation concerns?

Robert Rosner: So my understanding is that that bill is all about interim storage. So the issue is, right now the spent fuel is sitting literally next to the plants and the federal government had in fact promised that that spent fuel would be moved from those sites to some federal repository and Yucca Mountain is the target. Of course the immediate problem is that Yucca Mountain is not yet open and exactly when the date is of when it will open, I mean that's obviously subject to some speculation. But in the interim you have to do something. One of the possibilities is to put the material, which is right now in wet storage in pools, into dry storage casks and you can design those casks in such a way that the fuel can be stored a safe way for fairly long periods of time. In fact, well past the period in which you can hope in fact to open Yucca Mountain.

Ben Geman: Right, but the DOE, excuse me, the House appropriators language calls for both interim storage at DOE sites --

Robert Rosner: Right.

Ben Geman: And a reprocessing initiative. So sticking with the reprocessing part, can that --

Robert Rosner: I understand, yes.

Ben Geman: Can that be done safely and in a proliferation resistant way with current technology?

Robert Rosner: Right, so I think that if you asked the question about doing reprocessing within the United States, I think the question is absolutely yes. Reprocessing technology can be implemented, in fact, both at Argonne and in Idaho, at the Idaho National Labs. There's been substantial work done on developing the reprocessing technology and on, certainly not only in the lab scale, but pass the lab scale, that's actually been done. In fact, the processes that have been developed include both, if you like, wet processes, so-called URIX plus process for example as well as processes which are referred to as pyroprocessing, which basically what you do is you actually, not only do you pull out the actinides, but you actually also destroy them, you burn the actinides.

Brian Stempeck: Right. I want to turn a little bit to the full appropriations bill, when we're looking at funding for DOE, a lot of the money for research, for the office science, has remained flat for most of the past few years. People say basically you're getting the same amount of money now that you did in the early '90s when you adjust for inflation. Why isn't the White House making this a priority when it comes to spending the dollars for the national labs?

Robert Rosner: Well my impression is that when I, I have talked for example to the secretary, Secretary Bodman, and my impression is that he is full square behind science. I think that he has been in place since January and obviously couldn't have affected the budget at the present, therefore I have five budgets, and probably not there for a sixth budget very much, and my understanding is that science will, in fact, thrive under Secretary Bodman. In fact it was a, for me it was actually, my understanding, I think I was the first new vat director that he interviewed and so we were new, both of us, we were new to the game of interviewing each other. I enormously enjoyed meeting him and my politically naive view of secretaries of grand departments has always been that those folks aren't necessarily subject experts, but yet here is a fellow who clearly is, comes out of the academic world --

Brian Stempeck: So you're predicting then, are you predicting then more money for FY 'O7, for the office science? I mean it's been pretty flat for three or four years now.

Robert Rosner: Right, I would say, my specialty is not prediction of the future in fiscal dilemmas.

Brian Stempeck: No, I know, no one's is.

Robert Rosner: Right, well, I'm definitely not one of those, but when I hear the words and I see the fellow in action and also I've heard from his staff, that is the fellows and the folks that report to him. Such as for example, the head of the Office of Science, it's pretty clear to me that science will fair well.

Ben Geman: And if you were to look at, I mean, the DOE science mandate, it's fairly broad. If you were to look at the sort of different areas of DOE science, both at your lab and elsewhere, which areas would you say are in the greatest need of a resource increase, whereas which ones are sort of OK where they're at?

Robert Rosner: I have yet to meet a scientist who will admit to being OK as far as funding is concerned. Maybe such a person can be found, but I haven't met such a person. There are different imperatives for different parts of the science. We can go down the, some areas of science that is covered by the Department of Energy, such as for example, high-energy physics, is at this stage where a new accelerator that the U.S. is involved in, the Large Hadron Collider, is about to start at CERN and one of the key questions that is going to be asked about that is in fact, what will they find? And what they will find, very much conditions what the future of the field will be in the United States.

Brian Stempeck: Another major project that your lab works on is hydrogen and fuel cell research, was a big priority in Capitol Hill right now with the energy bill going through. Tell us little bit more about the work that you're doing there, what kind of fuel cell projects your lab focuses on?

Robert Rosner: So, we have a number of foci, one of the key foci is actually an interesting perspective on how you get from where we are now to where we will be and I want to tell you a little bit about that because it's not a very well recognized issue. The issue for getting to the hydrogen economy is that right now we have basically no hydrogen cars and we have no hydrogen filling stations, maybe there's one. And the endpoint is going to be cars that are, virtually all of them being powered by hydrogen.

Brian Stempeck: Right.

Robert Rosner: And a hydrogen filling station on every other corner, the way we have gas stations today. Now from the point of view of capital investment, of companies that want to build the stations, of course that's the chicken and egg problem because you're not going to invest the money to build those stations if there aren't any cars that you can actually service.

Brian Stempeck: Sure.

Robert Rosner: So the prerequisite is to figure out a way of getting hydrogen cars onto the road before you actually have to build the stations and there is a way of doing it. And the way of doing it is to construct things called reformers. These are devices that extract hydrogen from a carbon based fuel, such as for example natural gas, so you've got a fuel that the present infrastructure can in fact handle and distribute and you fuel a generation of vehicles that in fact are, the vehicles that in fact can take you to the next step.

Ben Geman: So are you working with any of the major automakers to kind of put these cars on the road that you're talking about, that could use the existing infrastructure and also be powered by hydrogen? Is that happening?

Robert Rosner: Absolutely, yes it is. We're working with major manufacturers. We're working with major manufacturers also in areas such as hybrid cars. Argonne is serving as, if you like to call kind of the honest broker, for defining standards for hybrid cars and we have an automobile test center where the major automobile manufacturers, both in the U.S. and companies such as Toyota, in fact bring their vehicles, in fact to be tested.

Brian Stempeck: Now that's been a big issue, people saying that they're not getting the mileage that they expect. You're talking about people who have a Toyota Prius that's getting over 40 or 50 miles per gallon. But when they drive it on the road it gets significantly less than that. Is that something that your lab is going to help EPA and other agencies address?

Robert Rosner: Absolutely. These are the kinds of issues exactly that the lab really is focusing on, basically validating numbers, that's correct.

Ben Geman: How do you respond though to critics who say that with all the money you're putting towards fuel cells you're leaving out other programs? You're leaving out renewable energy. You're cutting other accounts and you know, people said the infrastructure costs are very high. Why not just focus on hybrid cars, things we already have as opposed to something that's 20 or 30 years out at best?

Robert Rosner: So that's a very interesting question and basically, let me rephrase your question.

Ben Geman: All right.

Robert Rosner: Which is if you want to get to a goal, why are you bothering to do basic research at all? After all, if you just want to get to a defined goal and you don't need the basic research to get there, maybe all you should do is just the applied research. And I think the answer to that is, we'll how did you think you got to the point of doing just the applied research? The reason it is because years before someone else in fact did the basic research. So you're basically really asking a question that says, well why don't you throw the baby out with the bath water? It seems to me it's absolutely essential to do the basic research, to keep at it and sometimes the basic research, in surprising ways, can lead you to new applied areas that you would've never expected. A nice example, we've been working on ice slurries for the purpose of chilled water plants for many years. It turns out that a chance meeting between someone, an MD at the University of Chicago in the emergency medicine and one of the folks working in the ice slurries, discovered that on the emergency medicine end there's a very simple, but crucial problem. Someone has a heart attack, you've got something of the order of 10 minutes for that person to get to the hospital because they don't their brain cells begin to die because you've lost circulation and your brain is not getting any oxygen anymore. So how do you fix that? Well the way you fix that is you lower the metabolic rate. How do you do that? Cool them down. The problem is the brain is inside. It's very hard to cool the brain just by putting an ice bag around your head. It basically doesn't work. What you need to do is find a way of cooling the blood down. The way you do that is you take the ice slurries and you inject them into the lung. It's the very stuff that was used to do, yeah, to look, it's an amazing example of where technology that was fundamental, you know, asking a fundamental question about heat transport properties of slurries for an industrial reason, has an application directly to the medical.

Ben Geman: But looking at the sort of fact that there are finite resources for energy funding and the fact that you've got several sort of more climate environmentally friendly energy technologies out there, wind, solar, biomass, etc., etc., and those things are receiving flat funding whereas hydrogen research is going up and up and up. I mean, how do you respond to the criticism, taking your point about the need for basic research, nonetheless how do you respond to criticism that you're basically putting money in something that might be a home run way down the road at the expense of things that are proven to be helpful today?

Robert Rosner: OK. So let me address that directly. Hydrogen research, of the kind we were just talking about, the one I described for example the reformers, is very much about the way, how do you power systems that are mobile? We're not talking about stationary power. We're talking about power that's mobile. You're not going to power a car by having a windmill on top of the car.

Ben Geman: Right, once we --

Robert Rosner: You're not going to power a car --

Ben Geman: Convert it to electricity, sure.

Robert Rosner: Exactly. So we're really talking about transportation systems OK? So what are the options of powering cars, a transportation system? Well, you've got batteries or you've got something that's actually equivalent to batteries, quite frankly fuel cells are another way of storing energy --

Ben Geman: Right.

Robert Rosner: Because basically we've stored the energy in hydrogen, you've produced the hydrogen and then you burn it in the fuel cell. So from that point of view the question that you're asking is really apples and oranges. For transportation there isn't a, what are the options? Basically, doing battery research and doing fuel cell research. Where your question directly applies is if you talking about stationary power, the power that we use for example in our homes.

Ben Geman: Yeah, I was just sort of trying to ask you about the general spectrum of both transportation energies, transportation fuels and energy that are used --

Robert Rosner: I just wanted to be clear that on the transportation end the choices are very limited and alternative fuels, except possibly for ethanol and renewable of that sort, which is a possibility, but then you have the sequestration problem and you have to be able to guarantee that the carbon that you emit as a result of burning the ethanol, in fact is returned into the cornfields or whatever it is that you are going to be using. That it's returned in the same place --

Brian Stempeck: We're running out of time. I want to ask one last one last question of you.

Robert Rosner: Yes.

Brian Stempeck: Basically you've mentioned how you have met with Secretary Bodman and talking about what his priorities are to be, if you gave a prediction, in the coming year, in the coming few years of his term, what would you expect to see coming out of DOE? What would we see as far as a major new initiative like fuel cells? What's your prediction on what's going to happen next with DOE?

Robert Rosner: It's very hard to predict at the level of precision that you're asking about, but I think what I can predict with some assurance and in very general terms, is that the science side of the department is going to see some significant investments. That the science side of the department will see a resurgence and I think that everyone's happy about that. I also think that the nuclear side, the nuclear program side, will see also resurgence. I think this administration, in my view, has in the right thing about asking the question isn't this the right time to rethink nuclear energy? And as you probably know, some folks even on the green side have said --

Brian Stempeck: Are ready to do that.

Robert Rosner: Are ready to do that and I think we're not ready to go mass produce plants, but we're certainly ready to ask the question what's the right thing to do.

Brian Stempeck: All right I'm going to stop there. I'd like to thank our guests today. That was Dr. Robert Rosner, director of Argonne National Laboratory. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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