Interview for the website

A friend of mine, Luis Fernadez, interviewed me for the website Sustatu, a Basque site on technology, economy, and culture.  The interview, in Basque, can be found on their site.  Here, I’m posting an English version of that interview.  The subject is primarily nuclear energy.  Thanks for this opportunity, Luistxo!  (Unfortunately, my Basque is no where near good enough to answer Luistxo directly.  I answered in English, as below, and he translated to Euskara for me.)

Blas, tell us about your work and position at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

First, let me say that the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

I am a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). I work in a group that is studying materials for nuclear energy applications. In particular, we are interested in materials that would make for better nuclear fuels and would allow for better treatment of the nuclear waste from a nuclear reactor. We study materials at a fundamental level, trying to understand what makes some materials better than other for various applications. In particular, I perform computer simulations of materials at the atomic scale in order to determine what atomic-scale properties govern materials’ performance in various nuclear environments.

Los Alamos is were they invented the atomic bomb… Is it a place we should fear?

It is where the bomb was invented, during World War II, spurred, at least in part, by the concern that the Nazis were also developing a bomb. Many of the world’s brightest scientists were at Los Alamos at the time, including Feynman, Oppenheimer, and Bethe, among others. Today, the laboratory has a diverse mission and while weapons is still a large part of the work, there are many other aspects to the work being performed, including research in alternative energy (including solar, biomass, nuclear, and clean coal), AIDS, superconductivity, threat detection/reduction and many other areas. In my opinion, it isn’t a place to be feared, it is a place where cutting edge science is performed in service of the United States and the world in many areas important to all of us.

I would like to know your position on nuclear energy.

Well, I am pro-nuclear. Most of the research the team I am on does is on materials for various aspects of nuclear energy (work that won’t make much difference today but hopefully lays the foundation for improvements in the next generation). I personally think that the only way we will be able to meet the demands for energy that the world will increasingly make is to have nuclear energy. There seems to be absolutely no way we can generate enough energy via renewables, especially as the rest of the world moves closer to US consumption (which, it seems, they will as they become wealthier, as there is a direct correlation between wealth and energy use).

Also, I think that, while nuclear energy has its problems, and the waste is problematic, at least it is self-contained. It is in a well-defined place. The waste from coal is just spewed into the air so no one sees it, but it is a much greater quantity and significantly harder to contain. To power a 1 Gigawatt power plan, you have to burn 8000 tons of coal or 3 pounds of uranium. That is the real reason I’m pro-nuclear.

How is your own work related to nuclear energy and possible improvements of that technology?

We are studying the fundamental response of materials to radiation, to determine what materials survive radiation and which ones fall apart and why. The goal is to identify new materials, to predict which materials would make for better reactors maybe 30 years from now, improvements that would lead to better efficiency and performance. We are particularly focused on the waste problem, trying to identify materials that would allow us to better isolate nuclear waste and therefore address one of the biggest concerns about nuclear power. By having an improved waste strategy, the nuclear industry may be able to allay some of the concerns the public has about nuclear energy, leading to more acceptance of nuclear energy as an integral part of our energy infrastructure.

Concerns about renewable energies, the need to curb climate change… Aren’t these concerns less pressing now that the world is in the middle of a financial crisis?

This is a concern. In the United States alone, we have such big problems that will require huge amounts of money to address, the government will have to cut back on less pressing issues (though, to be honest, as someone who thinks climate change is real, I can’t imagine an issue that is more critical, at least in the longer term). So, I am concerned that research and development of renewable energies and nuclear energy will be cut back. However, this is a global problem. While the United States is one of the largest consumers of energy per capita (at least Canada uses more energy per capita), as the world continues to develop economies, people will become wealthier and demand access to more energy. Furthermore, climate change is not limited to just those countries that emit the most carbon dioxide, but is a global issue. Therefore, I think we will see more impetus for world-wide collaboration to both solve climate change and provide increasing amounts of energy. If we get to such a point, where the world is working together to solve these problems in a serious way, the probability of success will depend less on the condition of any individual country’s economy. That said, the current crisis is global in nature and may mean that no country can devote significant resources to addressing these problems.

Is the crisis being felt in America’s neighborhoods, where you live, among your neighbors?

I would say so. In our immediate neighborhood, houses are definitely harder to sell, but, as far as I am aware, there have been no foreclosures. However, in Santa Fe, and in the country as a whole, this is a big problem, being felt by many people. Stores are starting to close, including a lot of the big chain stores. Also, my wife is a massage therapist and she says a lot of massage therapists are starting to feel the crisis as people cut back on things they view as non-essential, such as massage. So, it is starting to be felt more and more by the person on the street.

And, as I said, I am concerned how it will impact the government’s ability to fund things that are viewed as less pressing, including research and development.

People want cheap gas. But isn’t perhaps expensive gas better for the Planet?

I would agree with that statement. Already, in the United States, we have seen a shift from people driving big trucks and sport utility vehicles to smaller, compact cars. It is my opinion that the government had an opportunity during the last energy crisis in the 1970s when gas prices also got large to push for more efficient vehicles. In the current climate, I think that if gas prices fall again, people may just revert back to driving their inefficient vehicles. I think higher gas prices push both ends of the market; they push the consumers to look for more efficient modes of transportation (not just personal vehicles, but also public transportation, which has also seen a spike in usage since the prices of gas have risen) and they force auto makers to reevaluate their development plans, leading to more efficient cars in the market. So, while the individual may suffer a bit from higher gas prices, in the long run, they will get more efficient cars and reduce the amount of pollution being emitted as well.

What do you expect from the next US president in the area of energy consumption and production?

Well, since we began this interview, Barack Obama has been elected president. Obama has expressed his views that we need more energy independence (though I personally view this as a misnomer. We will never be energy independent, we will always rely upon other countries for some fraction of our energy. The goal is to not be beholden to countries that are unfriendly for critical energy supplies). I expect that Obama will fund new research into renewable energy, provided he can address the problems of the financial crisis and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He has also expressed some acceptance of nuclear energy, though he has expressed concern about the waste problem. So, I think he will likely fund new research into that part of the nuclear fuel cycle. But, there are a lot of demands on the federal budget and it isn’t at all clear to me how the government will address all of those demands.

Obama won. Do you feel that Change has come to America?

Well, I think it is too early to see any concrete change, but I think that the atmosphere has changed. I’m hopeful, but also realistic. I realize that there are a lot of demands on both Obama and the government as a whole and not everything will be improved immediately. I just hope that items such as energy research are not short-changed as other things take priority. I don’t think we can neglect the energy problem, even with the other things we have to take care of. But, I also think Obama is a smart man who will surround himself with capable people, so I am hopeful that if anyone can get these things done, he can.

Will Obama have an impact on the international policies of the US? Does he have alternative approaches regarding Iraq or Afghanistan?

I think he will have a big impact, especially with regard to our relations with other countries. I think he will restore some of the standing the United States had with the rest of the world, pre-Bush. I think his election alone has gone a long way towards doing that, but there is a lot of work to do.

Regarding Iraq and Afghanistan, I think he does have some alternative plans, but I think that this is a delicate question. We have to end those wars, but in a way that doesn’t leave things even worse than they are now. I personally believe that if we had never entered Iraq, if we had devoted our energy to Afghanistan, for which we had international support, we might have been able to make that a stable country without a resurgent Taliban. So, I think Obama will consult with military experts to figure out a plan of action, but exactly what that will be, I cannot hazard to guess.

And Iran?

I think even Bush has come to the conclusion that we must talk with our enemies in order to resolve the tensions between us. I think Obama will go even further. He will be more diplomatic and will work hard at finding other solutions to our problems. With regards to Iran, it isn’t clear to me how much of a real problem they are and how much of the perceived problem has been hyped to give us a new enemy. My hope would be that Obama would reevaluate the situation and determine the true threat to us and our allies and work to diffuse the situation.

Improved nuclear reactors for better energy production. OK, so let’s make them and let that source of energy also flourish in developing countries. But won’t that lead to easier production of weapons-grade material and nuclear proliferation?

This is a bit beyond my expertise, but it is an important question. Fears of nuclear proliferation are one reason the United States does not reprocess its spent fuel. However, in the concepts being explored now, these issues are a focus, and if nuclear energy does go forward in a global way, these issues must be addressed. That said, regardless of what we do, countries such as China will push forward with nuclear energy. It seems to me that it would be better to work with them to come to some consensus on how to work around these problems rather than to follow independent paths.

You’ve worked not only on nuclear materials, but in other cutting-edge areas, like semiconductors… tell us a little bit about that.

It is hard to overstate the importance of semiconductors to our modern society. Without the computer and the microchips that are now in everything, the way we live would be very different. However, there is always a push to further improve the properties of the materials in the microchips, make the chips smaller, faster, and cheaper. One promising avenue is to incorporate germanium into those chips, which are now primarily based upon silicon. Germanium has some nice properties compared to silicon, but it is a bit more difficult to purify to the level needed for semiconductor technology. We are studying the way other elements that might be present, either intentionally or not, incorporate into germanium and the properties of that combined system. The goal is to give an understanding of the material such that engineers know better how to tune the fabrication process to get improved performance.

Is there any risk that Germanium will invade Polonium?

Well, I’m no foreign policy expert, but I don’t think that is likely. But, if Germanium does invade Polonium, I expect Americium will come to Polonium’s defense.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to close by saying that I think energy will be one of the biggest challenges faced by all of human kind in the next 50 years. Especially in the west, our society depends so much on the availability of energy and as other parts of the world attain the same standards of living, energy demand will only go up. We also need clean energy to counter the problems associated with global warming. So, not only do we need more energy, we need to find alternatives to our most abundant sources. It will require a massive effort by all the world to solve the energy problem. Unfortunately, this is a long term problem that will require long term planning to solve, which is counter to the short election cycles that much of the west relies upon for governance. Somehow, we must get beyond the short-sitedness of election cycles and plan for the longer term. I think this will be the primary challenge for our governments.

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