Earth Day Q & A with Dr. Jim Conca

As an environmentalist and a keen watcher of the global energy picture, we asked Dr. Jim Conca to talk to us about energy and the environment as we mark Earth Day 2016.

Dr Jim Conca edit

Dr. Jim Conca

Over the last 30 years, Conca has been Director of the Center for Laboratory Sciences, Director of the New Mexico State University Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, Team Leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory, faculty at Washington State University, a scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Coordinator of Shuttle Activities over the Poles at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Conca obtained a Ph.D. in Geochemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1985; a Masters in Planetary Science in 1981; and a Bachelors in Geology and Biochemistry from Brown University in 1979.


Earth Day 2016 is upon us, what is the most pressing environmental issue facing the U.S.?

I have to say the continued use of oil and coal in America, because they affect so much of the environment. The release of carbon is the most voluminous, but the adverse environmental effects of drilling and mining, oil spills and pipeline leaks, strip and mountain top mining, coal impoundment failures, the non-carbon emissions such as sulfur and nitrogen compounds and particulates that pollute not just the environment, but contribute to the unnecessary deaths of about 15,000 Americans every year, these are huge issues that dwarf almost all others.

When did you realize you were an environmentalist?

When I was growing up during the advent of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 70s in New England. The creation of the EPA when I was in high school was dramatic, and there were many ads on TV about air pollution, especially in Los Angeles.

As an environmentalist, what would you most like to change about that movement/community?

It seems to have adopted a rather strong ideological tone, as opposed to a grassroots tone based on science that it used to have. There does not seem to be any room for discussion of options. And, of course, the vehement anti-nuclear stand, even in the face of all scientific and historic data, plus (the criticism of) a few key people like James Hansen, who understand that our environmental goals will not be met without significant nuclear and hydroelectric power.

When did you first realize nuclear energy is a good thing?

When I started working at NASA in 1985, seeing its use in the space program, and especially after I started working on nuclear waste in the next few years. I had always been told that nuclear had problems and was dangerous, and kept looking for the reasons behind those claims. After a while I saw they were incorrect, and then kept working within the nuclear field and accumulated so much direct experience, and came to know so many lifelong nuclear colleagues that it became clear the myths that arose from the Cold War years were just that – myths.

Jim Conca

Jim Conca featured in a public service announcement about the need for carbon-free nuclear energy. The spots can be viewed here and here.

What is the biggest obstacle, as you see it, to wider acceptance of nuclear energy?

Political and ideological anti-nuclear stands that prevent media from pursuing objective reporting and that prevent public schools and normal outlets for information from providing the scientific truth about nuclear energy, especially in perspective with other energy sources. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and people need to know all the issues surrounding energy in order for us, as a nation, to pursue a reasonable and environmentally safe energy future.

Much is made about nuclear waste, or spent nuclear fuel. What should people know about nuclear waste?

First, there just isn’t much of it. All of the nuclear waste from all sources would fit in one good-sized landfill, although that landfill should be a deep geologic repository in the correct rock. We know what that rock is and how to do it. We just aren’t allowed to do it.

Second, most of the waste is old bomb waste from the Cold War, completely different from used fuel from power reactors. The former really is waste and should be disposed of as soon as possible. The latter is not really waste at all, but can be burned in future reactors that can get 10 times as much energy out of it as present ones. One of Bill Gates’ projects, TerraPower, is actually designing just such a reactor, called a fast reactor. So put used fuel aside in dry cask storage for decades until we burn it all. Then that waste would go into a deep geologic repository like the bomb waste. In fact, since there still won’t be much volume to it all, it could go into the same repository decades later.

Used Fuel Casks ART

Dry cask storage containers at Columbia Generating Station. Each cask weighs 180 tons and can safely store used nuclear fuel for 100 years.

From a global perspective, how important is it that nuclear energy technology continues to advance?

Absolutely critical! We cannot provide the 30-plus trillion kilowatt hours per year to eradicate global poverty and handle the environmental effects of past fossil fuel use without expanding nuclear. Almost all the present reactors in the world will be retired by mid-century or so and need to be replaced with new designs, which we already have and are building. Even with as much renewables as we can produce over the next 50 years, if nuclear fails to double or triple, then coal use will continue to grow in the world. Coal is still the fastest-growing energy source in the world, contrary to public opinion in America.

China is firmly committed to nuclear energy. Bill Gates is supporting a company that is looking to operate a new type of reactor in China. Can the U.S. hold on to its nuclear technology leadership? What will it mean if we lose it?

Yes, China is the country with the fastest growing nuclear energy program. They break ground on a new reactor almost every three weeks. And yes, while Bill Gates and Chinese President Xi Jinping looked on in Seattle, TerraPower signed an agreement with the China National Nuclear Corporation allowing the two companies to collaborate on advanced nuclear technologies that address safety, environmental and cost issues, just this fast reactor technology we need. Of course, it’s sad this didn’t happen in America, but the ideological anti-nuke sentiment is preventing our government from maintaining our lead in nuclear power. We still do lead, but if we don’t get moving again quickly, China will overtake us in as little as 15 years, both in number and technology.

NuScale and its small modular reactor design have a real opportunity to become an American success story. If that happens, what does it mean for the U.S. economy and the environment?

It will be wonderful, because NuScale is firmly on track to build the first SMR in America, and it is truly a revolutionary design. All of the environmental issues we worry about have been solved and it is truly walk-away safe – can’t melt down. Since the cost is about the same as coal plants, and the design is modular, able to be sized for any application and location, together with larger new designs, it could replace coal by mid-century.

Many states have renewable portfolio standards. Should states reconsider and switch to clean energy standards?

Indeed! The most foolish decision in the recent history of energy legislation was to exclude nuclear from low-carbon energy sources able to meet the new portfolio standards. Making the standards clean energy, or low carbon, instead of just renewable, would actually make headway in our attempts to decrease fossil fuel use in America. Switching from coal to natural gas will only get you so far. Also, since we’ll be getting uranium out of seawater soon, nuclear will even become renewable, since uranium will be replaced in seawater as long as the winds will blow on Earth.

Thank you and happy Earth Day to you.

And to all of us.


You can read more of Jim Conca’s analysis and thoughts on energy and the environment at Forbes, where he blogs.

(Posted by John Dobken)

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