“[The United States will] devote its entire heart and mind to finding the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.
-President Eisenhower, “Atoms for Peace” Speech (December 8, 1953)
“Together, we can help peaceful nuclear energy realize its potential – and grow our economies, strengthen our security and build a healthier, safer planet.”
-U.S. Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu, (June 8, 2011)
The nearly sixty years that span the events at which these remarks were made by President Eisenhower and U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu mark important progress in the use of nuclear technologies for practical benefits from home smoke detectors to medical diagnostics and electricity. During this same time, the most notable accidents at nuclear facilities are reminders that these benefits can be costly beyond measurement in real time and have multi-generational impacts on human welfare, the environment, and financial systems.
In March 2010, President Barack Obama requested that the Secretary of Energy “conduct a comprehensive review of policies for managing the back end of the nuclear fuel cycle and recommend a new plan.” The resulting Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future released a report in 2012 that addresses seven key elements related to a nuclear waste strategy. One of the topics included in the Commission’s report “continued U.S. innovation in nuclear energy technology and for workforce development” will serve as a springboard for a National Academies Keck Futures Initiative (NAKFI) conference “The Future of Advance Nuclear Technologies: Building a Healthier and Safer Planet.”
The NAKFI conference brought together a diverse group of individuals – from physicists, chemists, nuclear engineers, nano scientists, medical researchers, and ethicists to representatives from the scientific media, and public and private funding organizations – to explore the future of advanced nuclear technologies. Attendees were challenged with identifying cutting-edge nuclear technologies that provide significant benefits to human welfare, the environment, and economy while considering the legitimate environmental, societal, and ethical obligations associated with developing and managing these technologies throughout their lifecycle.
Areas the conference explored included
Cutting-edge nuclear technologies in:
Nuclear Medicine: Human Health
- Improving medical diagnosis through imaging/radioactive tracers: finding a cure for diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s Disease)
- Providing treatment for cancer
- Sterilizing hospital supplies
- Controlling pests
Food and Agriculture: Reducing Poverty
- Improving crop yields
- Controlling pests
- Preserving food (delay ripening; destroying bacteria to delay spoilage)
- Supplying safe drinking water by reducing disease-causing organisms
- Desalinating water efficiently and cost-effectively
- Providing greenhouse-gas free energy
- Using nanotechnology to improve nuclear energy output and manage/transform waste
Nuclear Propulsion for Fuel Reduction
- Surface Carriers and Submarines
Advanced nuclear reactors (fission, fusion) for electricity production
High-temperature reactors for materials processing
Advanced nuclear fuel cycles
Advance nuclear detection technologies for homeland security applications
Preparing the Workforce
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “As the generation of professionals who built and led the nuclear power industry for the last half century approaches retirement, there is a shortage of new nuclear specialists to take their place…Even the few countries which have decided to abandon nuclear power will still need a highly qualified workforce for decades to come - to run existing nuclear power plants, to decommission them and to ensure the safe disposal of nuclear waste. Countries which have ambitious expansion plans, and what the IAEA calls 'newcomer' countries, also have considerable needs for new nuclear expertise.” This conference will explore ways to prepare the next generation for advanced nuclear technologies.
Observation of the Fukushima accident indicates that the public opinion and acceptance of nuclear technology can be formed by perceived transparency of public discussions and varying levels of understanding of the potential cost-benefit of nuclear technology.
- What do we know about the American public’s appreciation of nuclear technology? What is the difference between the aspects of nuclear technologies that are appreciated by the public versus those that are less appreciated, or versus other technologies that provide the same benefit (e.g., why is the public more willing to accept a coal-fired power plant than a nuclear power plant?). What are the key elements of public acceptance of nuclear technology?
- What can be learned from countries that have strong public support for nuclear technology?
- What nuclear technologies are most ripe (i.e., we “know what we know” and “we know what we don’t know”) for applications that can be easily understood and appreciated by the public?
- The “general public” consists of a diverse group of constituents with varying levels of appreciation for nuclear technology, and there are many strategies to address each of these audiences. Which “audience(s)” (e.g., k-12 students, parents, the voting public, policy makers, iPod users, others?) would provide the greatest cost-benefit for an initial program to increase their appreciation of the basic principles of nuclear technology? Do we start with people who already have an appreciation for nuclear technology, or is there a better starting audience?