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APS Panel on Public Affairs Tackles Nuclear Non-Proliferation and the Electricity Grid

By Lauren Schenkman

APS Washington Office

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A pair of forthcoming studies by the APS Panel on Public Affairs brings scientific expertise to bear on two modern challenges—strengthening nuclear verification and upgrading America’s electricity grid.

The studies, slated for publication in early 2010, will clarify the science and technology underlying both issues for an audience of policy makers and politicians.

In an agenda-setting speech in Prague last April, President Obama vowed to reduce and, eventually, eliminate the world’s store of nuclear weapons. Since then he has put renewed emphasis on nuclear verification, outlining a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, shepherding a new resolution through the United Nations Security Council, and planning a key summit on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty next year. Jay Davis, the chair of the POPA nuclear verification study, said that as the world reduces its stockpile, the challenges of verifying nuclear weapons actually increase.

“As you go further down to lower and lower numbers, inspection regimes are more intrusive and more extensive out of necessity,” he said. “To go to zero, you have to… put all the production and disposal [of nuclear fuel] under international control, and that has economic and corporate issues associated with it, as well as political and national security issues.”

Before retiring in 2002, Davis spent 32 years at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a nuclear physicist. His résumé covers two decades of nuclear policy experience, including leadership in arms control inspections and support of United Nations inspections in Iraq in 1991 and 2001. Davis is leading the panel in examining technology and protocol improvements that could make the tension-fraught waters of nuclear verification easier to navigate.

Davis said weapon states often resist inspections because they inevitably reveal sensitive information that inspectors could pass on. “The problem is, if I measure with high-resolution detectors radiation from a nuclear weapon, I not only know it’s a nuclear weapon, I know about its design,” he said.

He added that inspectors need detectors that provide dependable analysis while protecting proprietary details.

“It needs to be smart enough to do what you want to do, but dumb enough that it doesn’t compromise information,” he said.

The other forthcoming POPA study tackles upgrading America’s half-century-old electricity grid. Since its birth, the grid has been modernized piecemeal as repairs were made; meanwhile, the percentage of US primary energy used as electricity jumped from 10 to 40 percent. By 2030, the amount of electricity carried by the grid will need to increase by 50 percent in the US and to double worldwide. According to George Crabtree, the chair of the POPA grid study, the grid needs major upgrades to accommodate America’s growing energy needs, whether or not American transitions to more renewable energy sources.

“We need to send electricity long distances efficiently and reliably,” he said. “It’s a challenge; [the grid] is not really built to do that, and it’s experiencing trouble responding to demands we have.”

Crabtree is a physicist with more than two decades of research experience in superconductivity at Argonne National Laboratory, where he directs the Materials Science Division. He participated in a Department of Energy program that explores the use of superconducting materials in the grid, and served as a congressional witness at a House Science Committee hearing on hydrogen fuel.

Using renewable sources like wind will demand even more from the grid, Crabtree said. The study panel is exploring how storage or coupling with non-renewable but on-demand fuels like natural gas could accommodate the intermittency of wind or solar power.

The panel will also examine “smart grid” technology that incorporates decision-making to make the grid more efficient and reliable. Crabtree said he hopes that the study’s technical, far-sighted approach will help policy makers take the right first steps.

“Typically, many people with a vested interest in the grid are not thinking broadly or long term, 20 or 30 years from now,” Crabtree said. “We want to take a larger view about what technologies might be developed not only in five years, but also over the next two decades.”

Both reports will be produced in a short format by the Panel on Public Affairs, said Francis Slakey, Associate Director of Public Affairs, who initiated the POPA reports as a way to inform Congress on physics-related issues.

“These reports have led directly to new federal programs and changes in government policy,” he said, adding that many of them have been carried out in response to a congressional request.

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Editor: Alan Chodos