Wednesday, August 12, 2009

An Interview with Nobel Laureate Professor Roald Hoffmann

(Published earlier in the AERB Newsletter

KSP: Professor Hoffmann, AERB publishes a quarterly newsletter which is sent without charge to universities and institutions carrying our research and development and to individuals. On behalf of the readers of the newsletter I am keen to seek your views on nuclear power and related subjects. I am certain that the readers will value your views.

Hoffmann : In USA, over 100 nuclear power plants are operating. The estimates by the US Nuclear Energy Institute indicate that there is appreciable increase in the capacity factor of nuclear power stations on an average during the past several years. “There is also a claim that these improvements are achieved by the measures taken by the nuclear industry after the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power station. Still there is a feeling that nuclear power is on the decline in US. Is it true?

Hoffmann- It is true that there is no further growth of nuclear power in USA. Some people mistrust nuclear power. Rightly or wrongly, ,many people perceive that nuclear power production is not under control.

However, I do not think that any of these are the real reasons for the lack of growth of nuclear power. In my view the main reason is economic. The petroleum lobby exerts tremendous pressure. Because of this lobbying the price of petroleum products is unrealistically low.

Nuclear energy cannot compete in the open market in that sort of atmosphere.

The academic community is divided on their views on nuclear power. Most of them know that nuclear power is safe . They also know that the fear of environmental degradation due to nuclear power is misplaced, though they have some concern about nuclear waste management. By and large, scientists are pretty well happy with the environmental aspects of nuclear power, but are not so much aware of the economic aspects.

KSP - You mentioned that there is a notion among public that nuclear industry is not control. In what way this perception can be corrected?

Hoffmamm – People are not aware of the strict training programmes instituted by those who operate nuclear power reactors. They are also not aware of the quality control procedures in place. The nuclear industry should strive hard to publicize the information about these activities.

I feel that in a way the perception problem is somewhat insoluble. Though accidents are very rare, the public concern is genuine, as the risk involved is immense in case an accident occurs. Risk perception is not the same thing as risk assessment.

KSP – Is it true that opposition to nuclear power is partly due to the anti establishment attitude of section of the public?

Hoffman – Yes, there is some truth in it. When people are well off as in some of the European countries they find some new things to worry about.

KSP – It is said that giving public all the information is probably the best way to correct is probably the nest way to correct the imbalance, is that really so? There is also a feeling that giving more information by itself may not help. Though the informed person may be little more informed. It may probably sensitize groups of individuals and also make them more concerned.

Hoffman – I am for a very open system. In this respect, NASA did a very good job. They were very sensitive to public opinion. The public will accept risky activities. If they are told openly of the risks. A very open system is always better I am in favour of talking to people and informing them. This is precisely what NASA did. Still, Space has a romance of its own, not like nuclear power.

KSP –Generally, scientists are not good communicators. Nuclear scientists are not different. Do you have any views on the way scientists should communicate?

Hoffman - Television is a good medium. I feel that there should be good TV programme on basic science.

KSP : The staff of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board participated in some TV programmes, mainly in form of discussion. Don’t you agree that science programme have great disadvantage?

Hoffman : Well, they cannot obviously compete with entertainments programmes?

KSP – In the Kyoto conference a few pro-nuclear industrial for a promoted the virtues of nuclear power as a clean source of power which doe not emit green house gases. Do you think this approach is appropriate?

Hoff – I feel that the information on environmental advantages of nuclear power is new. the enhanced greenhouse effect due to fuel combustion is established. Exhaust. From automobiles and gas emission from fossil fuel plants are clearly visible. People are used to burning things, so the notion of emission of carbon dioxide is accepted. People relate drought, flood and climatic disasters to green house effect. People can be easily sensitized to issues of climatic changes. So nuclear power protagonists can have a natural alliance with informed environmentalists.

KSP – What do you think are the other concerns of people in regard to nuclear power?

Hoff: Waster management is an important issue. The public is concerned about waster. I am concerned about waster, both industrial and nuclear. Of course, it is the military nuclear waster, accumulated over the past few decades which creates the greatest problem.

There should be a long term programme for waster management. This is one area in USA, where the local, state level influences matter. Not in my Backyard (NIMBY) is currently the prevalent policy.

As for industrial wastes, heavy metal pollution is very important;. Organics and plastics are biodegradable over a period of a few hundreds of years.

KSP:In the case of nuclear waster also, barring some transuranics, the major part of the radioactivity comes from radionuclide such as Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 just as plastics are biodegradable over a few centuries these fission products decay to years. As a matter of fact you will agree that much of the industrial waster including heavy metals remain toxic for ever and as such should belong to a different class of waster materials. For instance, enormous quantities of mercury are released from coal power stations. What do you think is the ultimate solution of radioactive waster management?

Hoff – In may view, vitrification, followed by storage in geological formations is the solution for radioactive waster. One has to find out geological formations where the vitrified waste can be stored indefinitely. There are many, uncertainties in regard to such geological sites.

KSP – Any general comments about nuclear industry in US?

Hoff – I personally believe that we made a mistake in US. We allowed the nuclear industry to go private. People mistrust private industry.

KSP – Is it because of profit motive.

Hoff – Yes, in a way, private industry may cut corners to make profit. I prefer that the operation of nuclear power plants to be totally in public hands.

KSP – Post Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the regulatory mechanisms got strengthened. Don’t you think that self regulation is better than the imposed regulation?

Hoff – Yes, self regulation has merits, but in my view, there should be separate regulatory control, totally independent, even when the Government operates nuclear power plants. Regulation and control should be separated from operation. I also strongly feel that in regulatory organizations there is a need to involve well informed environmental scientists.

KSP - What is your view about the renewable sources of power?

Hoff – I am convinced that renewable have vital role to play. Hundred years from now petroleum will be exhausted. Eventually we will have to come back to solar and nuclear energy sources. They are cleaner. Solar is already used significantly in passive heating. There is also scope for large area solar energy collectors. Solar photo-voltaic technology developments in electronics are related. In my opinion solar energy development will unplanned fringe benefit of the development of electronics industry.

KSP – Do you agree that the renewable excluding hydropower are unlikely to make a significant contribution to electric power generation due to various reasons?

Hoff – Solar is already making its contribution in small ways, say for instance, passive methods, hot water heaters, solar calculators. Solar power is currently expensive. But I believe that in a few years from now solar and nuclear will become competitive.

KSP – Professor Hoffmann, I am very grateful to you for sparing your valuable time for this informative interview. Is it your first visits to India?

Hoff – No. I has been here three times earlier. In one of my visits I was at the Ciba Geigy Laboratories. My only regret is that I could not see much of Bombay this time.

No comments: