Nuclear Energy Insight
Base energy policy choices in the long term
January 2011—James Conca is senior scientist for the Institute for Energy and the Environment at New Mexico State University. He is a former director of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC), an independent project of the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) nuclear waste repository near Carlsbad, N.M.
He is also the co-author, with Judith Wright, of “The Geopolitics of Energy: Achieving a Just and Sustainable Energy Distribution by 2040.” The book advocates a national energy policy that allows the United States to get one-third of its electricity from fossil fuels, one-third from nuclear energy and one-third from renewable energy by 2040.
Nuclear Energy Insight asked Conca to share his perspective on energy policy and radioactive waste disposal.
Q: New domestic discoveries of natural gas deposits have dramatically changed the economics of natural gas for electricity. Has this forced you to alter your energy policy model?
Conca: No. The United States does have a lot of natural gas. With lower natural gas prices, the ratio between gas and coal would change so that there’s more natural gas and less coal in that one-third of the pie.
Q: Do we need a price on carbon to reach that goal?
Conca: I think a carbon tax would not pass because the present economic situation we’re in is just horrible for anything like that. To be effective, you need to price the [carbon] tax so high—over $40 per ton of emitted carbon—that no one who did it would ever be re-elected. I just think it’s not going to happen, but we don’t need it to make decisions on long-term life-cycle costs.
In terms of renewables and nuclear, the longer you run them, the more cost-effective they become. Whatever plan you come up with, you have to make choices based on the long-term. As a country, we need to have a plan that does not last just two years.
Q: Tell me about the Waste Isolation Pilot Project.
Conca: WIPP stores defense-related radioactive waste, called transuranic waste. It has to be remotely handled, shielded, the whole bit. We’ve been doing this for 11 years now.
There are no unknowns. We know exactly how much [a deep geologic repository] costs. We know exactly how to do it. It’s incredibly safe. The United States has a deep geologic nuclear repository that’s half-full and nobody even knows about it.
Q: What have been the findings of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center?
Conca: We have a 15-year record of the environment from before WIPP opened to the present. CEMRC has been operating since 1996 and WIPP since 1999. There’s been no change [in radioactivity at the site].
Q: Have you seen local attitudes about WIPP change?
Conca: Incredibly. It was always very positive—about 70 percent [favorable] in the beginning. WIPP started and nothing happened. Its industrial safety record is great. So, as a result, the public support has gone from about 70 percent to 90 percent or more.
Q: The nuclear energy industry would like to see a federally sponsored corporation manage the nation’s used nuclear fuel. What do you think of this approach?
Conca: I think it’s a brilliant idea because it takes it a little bit away from the government, so it’s not perceived as being quite as political. Second, it has this idea that it’s a corporation; it actually has to care about the cost. It doesn’t have the infinite deep pockets of taxpayers.
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