Ditch the DOE

25 June 2009

The United States is the only nation that relies on a large federal department to direct and manage energy and nuclear policies, programmes, research, development and related activities. The US Department of Energy (DoE) was formed in 1977 to direct national nuclear programmes; help resolve energy challenges resulting from America’s loss of ability in 1970 to recover enough oil to meet demands; and reduce atmospheric pollution from combustion of fossil fuels.

Instead it has spent about one trillion dollars and done virtually nothing to resolve energy and environmental challenges. It has lost the ability to produce nuclear materials needed for medicine, space exploration and defence and abandoned its responsibility to manage used nuclear power plant fuels and dispose of nuclear wastes. Major changes are needed to resolve energy and environmental challenges, produce nuclear materials, dispose of nuclear waste, while avoiding wasteful expenditures.

The process for change should begin with a decision by US president Barack Obama to follow president Harry S. Truman’s example in 1950, when America was faced with the need for a strong nuclear deterrent against military aggression or a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. President Truman listened to and accepted recommendations from former Manhattan Project Corps of Engineers officers who had provided direction for first and eminently successful use of nuclear technology, by Dupont.

President Obama, his energy advisors, energy leaders in Congress and government agencies and others should meet with the engineers and scientists who had provided direction for the safe, successful and well-managed programmes and initiatives of the DoE antecedents, the Atomic Energy

Commission, Energy Research and Development Administration, as well as the Department of Energy itself.

The greatest needs are:

1. A national commitment

A national commitment to a major increase in use of nuclear power to generate electricity, and development of technology for more efficient use of nuclear materials. France uses nuclear power for 80% of its total generation of electricity, while the US uses nuclear power for 80% of its pollution-free and carbon-free generation of electricity but only 20% of its total electricity, and releases three times as much carbon dioxide and bio-fuel pollutants to the atmosphere, per person, as France.

Low-temperature, low-density energy sources such as solar, geothermal, wind, and tidal will always be inefficient, expensive and unreliable for generation of electricity for most industrial and domestic applications, and of limited availability in most areas. Batteries, transformers and smart grids and meters for increased reliability and availability will be complex, vulnerable, and add to the cost. The energy needed to build, maintain and operate systems for generation of electricity from so-called ‘renewable’ sources (except hydropower), will approach and may exceed the amount generated, particularly if distributed over wide areas.

2. Corporate management

Competent corporate instead of government management to produce nuclear materials for national needs, to manage and recycle used fuel from nuclear power plants, and dispose of nuclear wastes. There have been great improvements in safety and performance of nuclear power plants in the US since the accident at Three Mile Island by the commitment to excellence and understanding of operations by plant operators, coordinated by the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, with improved oversight by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The outstanding safety and success of Dupont research, development, design, construction and operations at the Savannah River Plant were the result of corporate management by Dupont comparable to that for its

commercial activities. The repository investigated and planned by Dupont for final disposal of nuclear waste at SRP was unique in the US in that formidable, measurable, geologic barriers provided full assurances of isolation for geologic periods of time and a committee of state political and technical

leaders appointed by the state governor supported the investigation and plan.

In the 1960s, Dupont’s reprocessing facilities were the best in the world due to their remote, rapid replacement of failed equipment, rapid restart after shutdown, and containment of radioactivity under all conditions, including fire and explosion.

3. Better systems

Better systems for development and direction of energy and nuclear policies. Armed with better understanding of science, energy, and nuclear technology and the importance of competent corporate management, president Obama would announce a commitment to increased use of nuclear power to generate electricity, resume the downsizing of the DoE that was underway during the Clinton administration, and form the US Energy and Nuclear Technology Policy Board.

This nine-member board of experts would develop and direct national

energy and nuclear policies and programmes. Five members would be appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, two would be ex-officio, representing the majority and majority leaders of House and Senate energy committees, one would be appointed by the Edison Electric Institute and one by Business Roundtable. Appointed members would serve seven-year, overlapping terms and meet bi-monthly or more often to review energy and nuclear policies and programmes and make decisions or recommendations for changes as needed. A full-time staff of about 15 engineers and/or scientists with appropriate support would be working to inform the board. Two or three national laboratories would remain under board control for nuclear material production, reprocessing and so on.

Author Info:

Clinton Bastin is a retired Department of Energy nuclear scientist who specialised in reprocessing and spent fuel.

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