Dec 27, 2008

Obama Science Adviser Supports Long-Term Coal, Nuclear Devt

President-elect Barack Obama's next senior science adviser, Harvard academic and vociferous climate change advocate John Holdren, is a proponent for clean coal and advanced nuclear energy, according to his previous speeches and policy work.

But the types of coal and nuclear generation that Holdren advocates is years away from commercial development, and it's questionable whether he will encourage near-term private-sector expansion of the two sectors.

Obama Saturday named the head of the Harvard Kennedy School's Science, Technology, Public Policy Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs as his next Assistant to the President for Science and Technology.

According to a Belfer biography of Holdren, the environmental professor holds degrees in aerospace engineering and plasma physics, and is a specialist in energy technology and policy, climate change and nuclear arms control. He has long been an outspoken advocate for strong governmental regulation to curb greenhouse gases.

Holdren's expertise fits squarely into Obama's plan to shift the country away from fossil fuel production and towards lower carbon-emitting sources and greater efficiency. The president-elect wants to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, and has stocked his cabinet with Nobel Laureate physics whiz Steven Chu as Energy Secretary and a raft of environmental regulators to transform the country's energy economy.

Like Chu, Holdren is an advocate of encouraging innovation in efficiency and renewable sources of energy, and analysts are forecasting a broad expansion of those sectors. But two sectors - coal and nuclear power - have expressed concern that their future under an Obama presidency was bleak given the Obama team's climate change policy and comments on nuclear funding and waste.

Coal-fired plants are the biggest generators in the country, but they also belch out more carbon dioxide than nearly any other industry.

And nuclear generation is one of the costliest enterprises in the energy industry when factoring in long-term radioactive waste disposal. Analysts and generation companies such as Areva (CEI.FR) say government funding, including waste liabilities and loan guarantees, is essential to jump-start a domestic renaissance. Because of public concerns over safety and project costs, no new plant-building projects have been started for decades. With billions in loan guarantees now available, however, more than two dozen applications have been submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for new plants.

Holdren in speeches this year said better coal and nuclear technologies were key to solving the world's energy and environmental crises.

"The solution...(is to) use the world's abundant coal resources without intolerable impacts on regional air quality, acid rain and global climate," he said in March.

"(It's also to) expand the use of nuclear energy enough to make a difference for climate change and oil and gas dependence, while still reducing accident, terrorism and proliferation risks," he said in the same presentation. If the challenges of high cost, waste disposal, safety and weapons proliferation can be adequately addressed, then the Harvard academic supports a nuclear expansion.

In particular, Holdren advocated coal generation with carbon capture and storage. Many environmentalist organizations are fighting against CCS because the potential for long-term emission leakage from the underground reservoirs where gases are sequestered. By most expert accounts, sequestration technology is at least a decade away from becoming commercially deployable.

Holdren advocates using advanced nuclear technology to provide the country's heat, light and transportation, but has been outspoken against re-processing, which takes conventional spent nuclear fuel and processes it to further energy supply.

He has said the government should fulfill its current nuclear waste waste obligations at Yucca Mountain, Nev., if legally possible, but at the same time develop a dry-cask spent-fuel storage system at multiple sites across the country.

"This is a proven, safe, inexpensive waste-sequestering technology that would be good for 100 years or more, providing an interim, back-up solution against the possibility that Yucca Mountain is further delayed or derailed - or cannot be adequately expanded before a further geologic repository can be ready," a 2005 report chaired by Holdren recommended.

As Chairman of the board at the National Commission on Energy Policy, Holdren advocated the government funnel billions of taxpayer funds annually into carbon sequestration demonstration projects and advanced nuclear technology research.

Professor Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor who's worked with Holdren for years on nuclear policy, says there are a number of advanced nuclear power concepts that are more proliferation resistant that existing systems.

Bunn says there are literally dozens of potential technologies of advanced nuclear power concepts, including high temperature gas reactors, lead-cooled fast reactors, variations on light water reactors and molten-salt reactors.

It's unclear at this point, however, whether Holdren will advise Obama to agree to the nuclear industry's call for an expansion of the federal loan guarantee program to nearly $100 billion from around $17 billion now. Companies such as Exelon (EXC) say the guarantees are necessary to build the 30-plus new reactors that firms have applied for approval to construct.

Courtesy of CNN

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