Curiosity and Carbon – Discussing Nuclear Energy with CASEnergy’s Ron Kirk

Ron Kirk was curious.

As Co-Chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, Kirk had visited a half-dozen states to talk about the benefits of nuclear energy and everywhere he went people enthusiastically asked him about these things called small modular reactors.

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Ambassador Ron Kirk

Which is why when the opportunity to visit Oregon presented itself Kirk was eager to make the trip. “I have been wanting to come out here to learn about SMRs. I had to come see it for myself,” Kirk told me.

Oregon is home to NuScale Power, the leading player in the U.S. small modular reactor arena. NuScale, with offices in Corvallis and Portland, employs about 600 people and anticipates submitting its SMR design certification to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later this year.

NuScale’s Dr. Jose Reyes and Mike McGough led Kirk on a tour of NuScale research facilities on Oregon State University’s campus, including the Integral System Test facility, a working prototype of the NuScale reactor design.

But with Kirk, President Obama’s former trade ambassador and past mayor of Dallas, the discussion inevitably makes its way from technology to policy, specifically policies that govern how this country will generate low-carbon energy into the future.

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Ron Kirk, left, speaks with NuScale’s Dr. Jose Reyes at the NuScale facilities on the OSU campus.

Kirk was surprised to learn about Oregon’s moratorium (as it were) on new nuclear energy projects. Passed by voters in 1980 (the year after Three Mile Island), Measure 7 basically says there can be no new nuclear energy plants in the state until there is a permanent federal repository for used nuclear fuel storage. Any new nuclear plant proposed would also have to be approved by a majority of Oregon voters.

Kirk says that was then and this is now.

“Literally, you have the world coming here because of this incredible, potentially game-changing technology that came out of Oregon State,” Kirk said. “It’s going to be built elsewhere and deployed elsewhere and I’m just stunned that Oregon provided all the intellectual fuel and capital in what could be a game-changer in the war on carbon emissions and it’s not going to be deployed in the state.

“This is the equivalent of saying we produced the scientists who discovered penicillin and the state saying, ‘sorry, we passed a law that says you can’t use it here.’”

Addressing the mythology

Ambassador Kirk quickly discovered after joining CASEnergy that when it comes to nuclear, one spends a lot of time dispelling the myths and misconceptions before the conversation can progress to the benefits of nuclear as a generation resource.

One of the myths most in need of dispelling, in Kirk’s view, is that nuclear energy can’t help with climate change.

Indeed, a recent poll by the Nuclear Energy Institute found that 70 percent of respondents did not know that nuclear energy is the largest source of clean air energy in the U.S.

“Nuclear energy is the workhorse of clean energy,” Kirk explains. “You just can’t get around the fact that two-thirds of our carbon-free energy in this country comes from nuclear energy. That doesn’t make you anti-wind or anti-solar, we love those. But you simply cannot build enough wind and solar to replace the benefit that nuclear contributes to our carbon reduction strategy, both existing and going forward.”

Which is one reason he questions why a state like Oregon would essentially turn its back on a resource that has so much potential for providing carbon-free, full-time electricity.

“For Oregon to justifiably pride itself on its commitment to the environment, I just find it a little incongruous that they can’t find a way to square with that, the humility to say ‘maybe we had very legitimate reasons for the moratorium that went into place years ago. But today, knowing what we know now, let’s have an intelligent debate about that and revisit that,’” Kirk said.

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Ron Kirk speaks to a student at Portland State University.

As in Oregon and elsewhere, Kirk also tackles head-on the myth that nuclear waste, or used nuclear fuel, is an issue that would prevent more nuclear energy facilities from coming online. Kirk says the real issue with nuclear waste is the poor political discussion about it that has taken place for decades.

“We don’t have a (technical) challenge with nuclear waste because we know how to store nuclear fuel. We could recycle it. But the truth is nuclear fuel can be stored safely on site for 100 years. That’s not a reason to not deploy nuclear going forward,” Kirk said.

“If you had the fullness of the debate, people would see the nuclear waste issue is more of a red herring than it is a reason to not go forward with embracing nuclear energy.

“Our message is our nation is richly blessed to have a diversity of energy resources, and a non-carbon diversity of energy resources. Where we’ve gotten into trouble is when we try to arbitrarily pick winners and losers.”

Looking to the future

As the former U.S. trade representative, Kirk has seen the world. He has seen parts of the world that aren’t so abundantly equipped with rich energy resources. And it’s made an impression on him.

“When you travel around the world and you see what it’s like to grow an economy, operate a medical system, without the benefits of a reliable energy system, you come to realize we’re so blessed in America,” Kirk said. “In Dallas, we had the only person die of Ebola in the U.S. The real tragedy of that story, if you’ve been to the Ivory Coast and Africa, that’s not a story of infectious disease, that’s the story of the tragedy of living in the 21st century in a society that doesn’t have access to clean water and power. If they had those two things you don’t have an Ebola crisis. You can’t run research in hospitals if you don’t have those two elements.”

Kirk mentioned that on his visits to developing countries the Secret Service wouldn’t let him take the elevator for fear the power could go out at any minute, potentially stranding the group.

“When we were in office, India had a brownout that affected a third of the country. I had to remind my daughters that a third of India is almost all of North America. The mayhem and anger across the U.S. if we didn’t have power for 10 days? Our kids think it’s a birthright to wake up and plug in their smart phones and iPads and laptops. Our kids’ rooms suck more energy than our entire homes did growing up!”

It’s for all those reasons that Kirk says choices and decisions about where we get our electricity in the future need to be made now and made rationally.

“The time to start thinking about energy isn’t going to be 10 years from now when Vermont says maybe we shouldn’t have shut that plant down. You can’t call Wal-Mart and say we need a 1,000 megawatt electricity facility. These are decisions that require years of planning and design and billions of dollars in investment. America has been fueled, our growth has been fueled, by decisions that were made about clean water and energy 30, 40, 50 years ago. It’s up to our generation now to make sure we’re going to have the power, the infrastructure, to continue to drive our economy in the future.”

Optimistic about nuclear energy

Kirk sees reason for optimism concerning nuclear energy. The current energy debate is closely linked to reducing carbon-emissions, and that plays right into the need for more nuclear. He also sees younger generations making that linkage. Couple that with an embracing of technology and a growth of employment opportunities in nuclear energy, that bodes well for changing opinions among Millennials.

He also sees a change at the highest levels of government around the world.

“That diversity of hydro, wind, solar and nuclear is what our global leaders embraced in Paris (at the climate talks). They wanted to give nations the flexibility and very much over weighted it to not just renewables, but non-carbon sources. If it makes sense for India and it makes sense for China, which are two of the largest carbon-emitting nations, then it makes sense for the United States.

“Our president and our Energy secretary have embraced nuclear and amended the federal rules to say we are getting our energy from non-carbon emitting sources and I would hope Oregon would see the wisdom of that and soon follow suit.”

(Posted by John Dobken)

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