Chu v. Orszag: Why Chu Is Right and Orszag Is Wrong

The White House has proposed barring Energy Department research on fast reactor recycling of nuclear waste and technical support for licensing of small, modular light-water reactors, drawing protests from Energy Secretary Steven Chu that such prohibitions will have broad adverse effects, including hurting the U.S. nuclear industry's renaissance; crimping U.S. ability to influence other countries' fast reactor designs to address proliferation concerns; and taking away nuclear waste disposal options that might be considered by the administration's planned blue-ribbon panel on alternatives to the Yucca Mountain repository.

In the letter, Chu said he "strongly disagree[s] with the policy direction [proposed by OMB] concerning allowable nuclear energy R&D activities."

Chu added: "The OMB [passback] prohibits fast reactor R&D within the [nuclear] fuel cycle R&D program; prohibits light-water licensing and manufacturing support activities associated with small/modular reactors; and directs that the reactor enabling technologies program be renamed 'advanced concepts' and be entirely run as an investigator-initiated, competitive process."

It's clear to me that Chu is right and Orszag is wrong. Here are a few reasons, summarized by fast reactor scientist George Stanford, as to why DOE should be building a fast reactor now:

It seems clear that uranium supply is not a near-term problem, even for thermal reactors. But there are other reasons to forge ahead with fast reactors (such as the IFR). Here are some:

1. Eighty years of waste from 1000 (1-GWe) reactors would leave enough used fuel for 10 or 20 Yucca Mountains.

2. The environmental effects of accelerated uranium mining will impinge increasingly on the public's consciousness. Resistance to uranium mining is already growing.

3. The accumulating plutonium inventory will, rightly or wrongly, be seen as an ever-increasing proliferation risk,

4. The multiplying need for uranium enrichment means the spread of centrifuge technology and loss of international control of that technology, with serious proliferation implications.

5. Since China, India, Russia, et al. are forging ahead with their fast-reactor programs, technological leadership will continue to move in that direction.

6. The concomitant spread of fuel-processing technology will mean loss of international control of that technology, with further serious proliferation implications.

7. No nation can make nuclear weapons without either enrichment or reprocessing facilities, regardless of how many reactors it has. The loss of U.S. technological leadership will mean the loss of ability to bring order to the global development and deployment of nuclear technology, with the consequent uninhibited spread of proliferation potential.

8. The institutional knowledge of the U.S.-developed fast reactor technology is rapidly dying off, accelerating the North American descent to second-class technological status.

Let's hope that Chu prevails. The fate of the planet is at stake.