By Lauren Schenkman
The American Physical Society will bring scientific expertise and long-term thinking to the challenges of strengthening nuclear verification and upgrading America’s electricity grid with the future release of two reports covering the critical issues. Authored by top physicists with decades of relevant experience, the reports will clarify the science and technology matters associated with the topics.
President Obama vowed in April to reduce and, eventually, eliminate nuclear weapons; since then, his Administration has re-engaged America with nonproliferation by outlining a replacement for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and planning a key summit on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty next year. Jay Davis, the chair of APS’s 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 resume covers two decades of nuclear policy experience, including leadership in arms control inspections and support of United Nations inspections of 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 are loathe to allow inspections, worried that inspectors will seek to profit from the sensitive information that is inevitably revealed. “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 detectors which provide dependable analysis while protecting the details are very much needed.
“It needs to be smart enough to do what you want to do, but dumb enough that it doesn’t compromise information,” he said.
Another upcoming APS study tackles the modernization of America’s electricity grid. Officials have taken a piecemeal approach toward improving the grid since its birth in the early 20th century; this has occurred while the percentage of U.S. 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 U.S. and double worldwide. Grid study leader George 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 has participated in a Department of Energy program that explores the use of superconducting materials in the grid; he also served as a congressional witness for a House Science Committee on hydrogen fuel. According to Crabtree, the grid needs major upgrades to accommodate America’s growing energy needs. He added that even if America doesn’t transition to more renewable energy sources, the country still needs to upgrade the grid.
“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 the demands we have.”
Using renewable sources like wind will demand even more from the grid. 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 policymakers 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 APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA), 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.