Issue Date: April 13, 2009
New Mission For Weapons Labs
TWO ARTICLES regarding the Department of Energy's weapons laboratories and new leadership illustrate that without decisive management there will be continuing loss of opportunity within DOE (C&EN, Jan. 5, page 24, and Jan. 12, page 32). Secretary of Energy Steven Chu's statements are well phrased, but what he doesn't say, or perhaps what he doesn't yet completely understand, is that the U.S. needs the three weapons laboratories to have a mission, not a collection of projects.
I resigned from my position in the Materials Science Directorate at Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) about 10 years ago to pursue a career in the private sector, in part because of this lack of a clear mission. Nothing in the Jan. 12 article or any comments from my friends who are still with SNL or DOE suggests that any of the recent energy secretaries have successfully redefined the mission of the national labs.
Therefore, perhaps one of Chu's responsibilities will be to define a new mission for the weapons labs that addresses the U.S.'s needs and responsibilities, that is a coordinated effort, and that will create jobs and "repower" America. Basic research may be a part of this new mission, but Los Alamos would never have built an atomic weapon through investment in basic energy sciences without a mission.
Given the previous lack of success in redefining a sustaining mission, I will propose one: Fund the three weapons laboratories to compete against each other in a race to design a nuclear technology that produces electricity for less than the price achievable with coal-fired power plants. The generation cost must encompass the entire fuel cycle, including waste processing and eventual storage. Because the cost of clean electricity is, or will be, a basic unit of commerce, if the labs are successful, the cost of energy will be less in the U.S. than in any other country. I can't imagine a more strategically competitive—or a more capitalist—approach to energy generation.
Such a mission may appear ludicrous, as current light-water reactors are massively expensive and the total fuel cycle cost has yet to be completely captured. However, I clearly remember how Edward Teller promoted his ideas for mass-produced, inexpensive, highly efficient, low-waste (per megawatt), secure underground reactors when he lectured at Sandia in the early 1990s. Some of his ideas have been further refined (Nucl. Technol. 2005, 151, 334). This article's abstract suggests a design for a reactor that would operate without refueling for 200 years.
Why not take this a step further to a 1,000-year, mass-producible reactor that would provide inexpensive, near-zero-waste energy (on a per MW basis)? A competition to design and build such a reactor would be a defining mission for the weapons laboratories that would address climate change, nuclear waste minimization, and low-cost electricity generation, as well as competitiveness and job creation. Perhaps there could be a new chapter in Teller's legacy, if only there were the political will to change the direction of the weapons laboratories to clean, efficient, precompetitive nuclear energy generation.
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