Rocky Barker’s blog: INL chief misses chance to get nuclear converts
June 5, 2007
By Rocky Barker
Idaho National Laboratory Director John Grossenbacher spoke to a packed house Monday at the Boise City Club about the upcoming resurgence of nuclear power.
But the former Navy admiral, who because of his job is the state’s main voice for nuclear power, missed a chance to bring a few new supporters into the fold.
The lab, where nuclear power was practically invented in the 1950s, remains the U.S. Department of Energy’s lead site for nuclear energy research. The simple story that lab directors have told since the early 1950s, is that what’s good for nuclear power is good for the lab. And since thousands of high paying scientists and engineers work there along with technicians and support staff, what’s good for the INL is good for Idaho.
Grossenbacher included this in his speech, but didn’t overplay it. For 50 years this message alone was enough to build support for the lab even when it shifted its focus to waste management for the nuclear weapons industry in the Cold War.
Like much of the nuclear industry, the lab suffered after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 that melted a third of the reactor’s core but didn’t injure anyone. INL nuclear scientists were leading the industry back with a spectacular test of a reactor at the lab that automatically shut it self off when it lost coolant in 1986. Then days later the Chernobyl reactor in the Soviet Union melted down, killing dozens, irradiated hundreds of square miles and sent a plume of radioactive dust across Europe.
The nuclear industry is finally beginning to recover worldwide. Even countries that banned nuclear power plants after Chernobyl are reconsidering.
The reason is climate change and global warming. Nuclear reactors don’t emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to produce electricity. Coal, natural gas and oil, the other major sources of electric power do. From the standpoint of greenhouse gases, nuclear power is as similar to wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.
Grossenbacher talked about this. He even told the audience he believed something needs to be done to reduce greenhouse gases. But he stopped short of what he told a Boise business group only two months ago.
I got it out of him in an interview afterwards.
He told the business leaders that a carbon tax or a similar public policy device, would give nuclear energy an advantage over coal and oil. I talked with several people afterwards, and for them it was a wake-up call.
It also tapped into the old INL message: What’s good for nuclear power is good for Idaho.
But Monday, Grossenbacher muted that message. He instead fought the nuclear energy’s last battle, talking about how little risk there is from living next to a nuclear power plant and how nuclear opponents have overstated the risks from radiation.
His reticence is understandable. Saying out loud that a carbon tax is good for nuclear power goes against the views of Idaho’s Republican congressional delegation led by Republican Sen. Larry Craig.
Following the old logic that what’s good for nuclear power is good for Idaho would mean that a carbon tax would be good for Idaho. Grossenbacher clearly doesn’t want to go there.
He talked about nuclear waste, the industry’s biggest challenge. But he only alluded to the risk comparison between nuclear waste and global warming.
This has been nuclear power’s strongest selling point among European leaders and even many environmentalists.
The nuclear waste problem in this country remains largely unresolved.
Yucca Mountain, the national nuclear waste site in Nevada, still isn’t open and because of political opposition may never open. Even if it does, it will fill up long before a new generation of nuclear plants comes on line.
The INL is working on a new reprocessing program, which would recycle the uranium and plutonium from spent fuel, and leave only the short term highly radioactive waste that would have to be managed for hundreds instead of thousands of years. But Grossenbacher and the Department of Energy aren’t talking about the reactors they consider one of the most promising long term energy sources, breeder reactors.
These reactors, like the INL’s former Integral Fast Reactor, create more fuel than they burn. They don’t need a massive exploration campaign to discover and then mine new bodies of uranium.
Jeremy Maxand and other nuclear opponents sat in the back of the room ready with their own arguments. When Grossenbacher asked the crowd what are nuclear opponents for, the Snake River Alliance was ready with a handout about renewable energy and conservation. The group has reorganized itself so that it now is not simply an anti-nuclear group but also an advocate for new
clean energy including biofuels and wind, which are very popular with Idaho farmers.
That conservation and renewables can produce enough energy to offset fossil fuels and nuclear power in the region or the world is at least as tough a sell as nuclear power, if not tougher.
The reality is that both sides have a stronger case today than they did before the consensus on the threat of climate change caused by greenhouse gases came along.
But to convince the public, they need to use their best arguments. Grossenbacher did before the Boise businessmen but not the City Club.