(New America Foundation/Flickr)

Michael Levi heads the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us to talk about his new book, “The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future,” which investigates the growing energy revolution in the U.S.

Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment and director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of "The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America's Future"

  • jurgispilis

    What effect do you predict immigration reform would have on the economy? On one hand, you would have even more workers competing for fewer jobs, in a high unemployment environment. On the other, bright foreign entrepenuers would be attracted to start new companies here. How do you weigh in, Jerry?

  • commonsense1234

    Do you think the investment tax credit for renewable energy that is set to expire in 2016 should be extended?

    What else can the Federal govt do to encourage a conversion of vehicles to natural gas (CNG) in order to reduce our demand on oil?

  • commonsense1234

    What is his opinion on the Keystone XL pipeline?

  • commonsense1234

    What is his opinion on alternative nuclear energy (i.e. Thorium molten salt reactors)?

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    I and many of my friends live in small homes under 300 sq ft, here in the Sierras and are 100% off grid and I would love to see ALL new homes being required to be at least 50% solar with major major tax breaks for homes that are 100% off grid. Especially here in western states where sunshine is at least 300 full sun days per year.

    • Robert Thomas

      Beth, does your family use vehicles? How are they powered?

    • thucy

      I love that you did that, Beth, you really live up to your “crunchy con” claim. and I would love for those tax breaks to happen.

  • commonsense1234

    Regarding nuclear waste, there is 50K tons of waste at the 102 reactors in the US. Given that the current technology is highly inefficient, creates a lot of waste, extremely expensive, and potentially dangerous, shouldn’t the US invest in Thorium reactors that don’t create waste, don’t need expensive containment vessels and has already been done back in the 1960’s? The Chinese and the Indians are working on this technology. Shouldn’t we, the US, be the leader in a technology that we originally created?

  • Chris OConnell

    Nuclear power is a non-starter. Exhibit A: Iran.

    • commonsense1234

      Iran could have a Thorium reactor and not produce plutonium.

  • Kaveh

    I’d like to hear Mr. Levy’s thoughts on Space Based Solar Power. The technology is already available, and the cost of launching equipment beyond orbit has decreased thanks in part to the emergence of private enterprises like Space X.

    Here we have the potential to exploit the energy of the sun 24/7 and without the atmosphere limiting the effectiveness of solar panels.

    The startup cost is quite high ($20 billion), but a reprioritization of national budgets (say Pentagon ) could yield results

    • commonsense1234

      Way too expensive – it would be cheaper for the govt to put solar panels on everyone’s homes. Plus it is a bit dangerous with the microwave distribution (i.e. getting the energy to the ground.)

  • Robert

    What is to be done with the waste byproducts from the shale oil refining from the keystone pipeline oil?

  • commonsense1234

    Here is some information about Thorium for Mr. Levi

  • Robert Thomas

    The best thing that can happen in North America with respect to a shift to renewable energy will be the transition of the passenger fleet to pug-in electric power. But no one will ever generate enough energy from their roof-top solar collectors to power their vehicle(s). The alternative is to provide an increasingly efficient and capacious electric distribution system that can deliver an energy source of relatively inelastic cost to home charging stations. That infrastructure will promote the best path for renewable energy sources (and that WILL include sources such as wind power) to supplant fossil fuel energy generation over time. The only source of this energy of relatively inelastic cost immediately required is natural gas energy delivered through electric generation.

  • Scientific_Environmentalist

    On KQED Forum this morning I heard Michael Levi issue a challenge to thorium nuclear reactor advocates: to present accurate information on the technical downside as well as the upside of proposed thorium nuclear technology. As a published applied nuclear physicist and a thorium fuel advocate, I would like to be one of your go-to guys for both. My next peer-reviewed paper will be “Parametric Core Analysis and Economic Feasibility of a Thorium Heavy Water Breeder Reactor,” accepted for publication in the ANS journal Nuclear Technology in the next 3 months. I agree with Michael Levi that thorium is not a “silver bullet” that will solve all of nuclear energy’s problems. I also agree with Levi that the major risk of nuclear energy today and in the future is neither the risk of meltdown, nor the risk of contamination from nuclear waste, despite the common view in the popular press. Those problems are serious enough, but can be managed and are for the most part being managed in ways that make nuclear safer and more environmentally desirable than coal, oil, or natural gas energy. The bigger future uncertainty is the possibility for nuclear proliferation, particularly nuclear terrorism. Levi is right that most of the proposed methods for reducing nuclear waste also increase the availability of technology for nuclear weapons proliferation. I would be happy to discuss the technical details of this trade-off particularly with regard to proposed thorium fuel cycles. Michael Levi if you use LinkedIn please find me as Ken Ricci (applied nuclear physicist) on LinkedIn and we can connect that way. Otherwise I will try to find you. Finally I would like to point out that advocates of the Molten Salt reactor often say it will be safer than Pressurized Water Reactors. How can anyone be sure? There has never been a major core accident in a Generation III or Gen III+ Light Water Reactor in over 20 years of operation with hundreds of units worldwide. The risk analysis suggests we can go up to 100,000 reactor core years without a major accident, but unless until we actually have an accident, who knows? It seems to me that Light Water Reactors of the latest generation are already safe enough, and the goals of the thorium fuel cycle should focus mainly on new ways to improve proliferation resistance while managing nuclear waste.

    • Tyranipocrit

      How is nuclear waste being managed and reduced? Give examples. How is meltdown manageable? Give examples. What about the fresh clean water circulate in to the reactors and then discharged? What about extraction of plutonium and uranium?

      • edpheil

        President Jimmy Carter under the guise of proliferation reduction, stopped reprocessing of fuel removed from reactors. This did two things, it defined removed fuel as waste, and creating a larger nuclear waste stream because it could not be processed into new fuel and low level cladding waste could not be separated from the real waste of fission products and long lived transuranics above the Pu239, which could have also been reused. Not reprocessing the Pu239 out of the fuel actually is increasing proliferation concerns due to the volume and need to protect it.

        Meltdown management: Meltdowns are extremely rare and have not resulted in many deaths or health effects to the populations in their vicinity.. Fossil fuels and renewables kill and injure many more people on a routine basis than the infrequent reactor accidents that might only kill a very few people. Having said that, we should still strive make energy production even safer by replacing these other production method with new reactors. Newer reactors are even safer for people than old reactors are even further reducing chances of meltdowns. Protests about reactors is more about fear and lack of understanding than about actual danger.

        Clean water: Once water goes into the reactor in the primary coolant system it is kept there. The water that you are likely thinking of is the turbine condenser water that comes in from the river, lake, or ocean to cool the condensor then goes back out to the river, cooling tower or cooling pond. It does not go into the reactor does not become radioactive. It just gets heated up. Or in a PWR there is another water loop between the primary coolant and the condenser called the secondary coolant water. This also does not go into the reactor and does not become activated. Generally,this also stays in the plant, but even if there were leaks or steam drains from this the water is safe.

        Having said that primary coolant water is also very clean, likely cleaner than your drinking water. It is constantly being purified by a filter or ion exchanger system to maintain extremely pure water and exact chemistry to prevent corrosion. Even corrosion products are removed to low levels. This water does get activated, but the majority of the activation decays away within minutes of leaving the reactor. Low levels of tritium and corrosion products may remain, but even directly from the reactor these would not have noticeable health effects, let alone once diluted in the air or water by the time they reach the public. Admiral Rickover drank a glass of reactor coolant to prove to congress that the water was safe. But, the nuclear industry is very cautious and does release this water.

        I don’t think anyone is extracting plutonium or uranium and if they did, the plutonium coming out of commercial reactors does have Pu239, but that also contains Pu240 which would need to be isotopically enriched to separate to really be used as a weapon. The uranium going into commercial reactors is not enriched enough to be used in weapons, and the reactor consumes over half of the weapons usable isotope, so there are less proliferation concerns with the uranium in waste. Plus, both are in highly radioactive fuel, making it very difficult to extract.

      • Scientific_Environmentalist

        Tyranipocrit, This is not the forum or the right audience for a detailed technical discussion of thorium fuel cycle options (which is why I invited Michael Levi to contact me separately on LinkedIn), but briefly: there are currently two cost-effective and environmentally safe ways to manage nuclear waste; either you bury in in a geological repository like Yucca Mountain, or you reprocess it, separate it into 3 or 4 spent fuel streams, and recycle all of those waste streams except the neutron-absorbing fission products and the shortest half-life fission products into a breeder reactor. The “4th waste stream” that is not recycled will not be an environmental risk for very long, it decays quickly into relatively safe, non-radioactive heavy metals.

        The problem however is that fuel reprocessing technologies in the past have been the same kind of dual-use technologies useful for separating fissile material for weapons. So reprocessing–the better way to manage waste– has been up to now the worse way to avoid weapons proliferation. This is why the Carter administration halted US nuclear fuel reprocessing by executive order. In principle, it was suppose to reduce proliferation risk (while increasing the waste storage problem however.) Whether Carter’s action had any helpful effect on international proliferation is debatable, and generally doubted.

        Thorium fuels offer the opportunities to run reactors on different isotope mixes that will be inherently much harder to reprocess for nuclear weapons– not completely proliferation-proof, but much more proliferation-resistant. Add this to an international oversight program such as the IAEA already has in most nuclear nations, and to a reactor design like the Molten Salt reactor with breeding ratio near unity (does not produce enough “spare fuel” to extract weapons material and still keep the reactor going), and you could go a long way to toward reducing the risk of weapons proliferation in the future, while also managing or reducing (possibly eliminating) nuclear waste– by recycling it all back into the reactor except the shortest half-life elements and some of the stable neutron absorbing elements. This is what I mean by “the waste problem can be managed successfully.”

        Regarding safety: Chernobyl is the outlier– perhaps several thousand people died prematurely of cancer over the next 5 years, although the true number will never be known–but of course the worse hydroelectric dam failure killed over 100,000, while millions of people have died prematurely of cancer and lung-related ailments from coal. While a nuclear meltdown makes a great news story, the statistics show that, averaged over the last 40 years and even including the deaths from Chernobyl, nuclear energy has caused far fewer deaths and far less environmental damage per gigawatt-year of electricity produced than coal, oil, natural gas, or hydroelectric power. Nuclear really is the “clean, safe energy option” although you obviously would not know that only from watching the popular media. Furthermore, Generation III and Gen III+ reactors are MUCH safer than Chernobyl, Fukushima, Windscale, SL1, or Three Mile Island (the five worst reactor accidents in history). So far hundreds of Gen III reactors have operated worldwide for over two decades and NOT ONE has had a major core accident. No other energy industry comes close to that safety record. This is what I mean by “the meltdown problem is being managed successfully.”

        So looking at the data, it appears that conventional nuclear energy is already safe enough and clean enough (bad propaganda notwithstanding); the benefits of thorium offer opportunities to make it more proliferation resistant while at the same time improving our options for waste stream recycling and management.

        • Tyranipocrit

          i cant agree that nuclear power is less harmful to tthe environemnt. Im not sure somethign like that can be measured or known. But I do thank you for your detailed explanation. I do think it should be investigated, but dont think we should rush into anything. I am very skeptical of nuclear power, but i would not take thoruim off the table. i dont thin its is about bad propaganda. Nuclear waster and radiation is very real. And power plants expensive to build, maintain, and dismantle.

    • edpheil

      The addition of thorium to LWR fuel allows a larger fraction of the fuel to be consumed before fission product poisons kill the fuel. Using more of your fuel (more power/unit waste) produces less waste thus reducing the proliferation source volume. It also reduces the waste volume, another benefit that should be considered for thorium rather than just proliferation resistance.

      But, lets look at liquid fueled-molten salt reactor (LF-MSR). This is less about thorium than about the reactor type reducing proliferation and waste. First a LF-MSR operates at 700-800C, so they are more efficient (45% vs 33%), so they use less fuel for the same power as an LWR, thus less proliferation waste could be produced, but read on.

      Take a U235/U238 fueled LF-MSR. If run as a fast reactor the U235 converts the U238 to Pu239 and then fissions that. All of the U,Pu, and TRU’s are left in the reactor, and only fission products are removed as waste. 99% of all fissile material is consumed with almost none going to proliferation susceptable waste streams. That is a significant improvement in proliferation reduction.

      Yes, Pu239 is produced in the process, but is not removed, AND it is contaminated with Pu240, etc. The Savannah River decommissioned weapons Pu239 MOX facility is planned to produce LWR fuel, not to consume the Pu239, but to put it in an LWR for a short while to convert Pu239 to Pu240 contaminant and result in it being in highly radioactive waste both techniques to prevent it from being used again in a weapon. A LF-MSR does this while in the reactor, but also completely consumes all the fissile material in the end, further reducing proliferation, since you don’t have to protect the waste from theft for proliferation concerns. You also don’t have to worry about criticality of waste storage because there are almost no fissile materials in it.

      The next obvious step is to simply add the decommissioned Pu239 (or U235) weapons material to the LF-MSR core to fully (99%) consume the fissile materials, again further reducing proliferation concerns.

      Now add thorium to any of the above fuel mixes. Eventually you produce U233 that can replace the need to enrich in U235, another proliferation capability. Keep adding natural uranium or existing depleted uranium (U238) stockpiles to keep the U233/(U233+U238) concentration below ~12% (similar to keeping U235/(U235+U238) below 20%). This maintains the U233 concentration fuel below proliferation concerns, while also dramatically reducing the Pu239 and TRU production, even though it would eventually be consumed.

      Bottom line, I think using the LF-MSR is a huge benefit for proliferation resistance, by consuming all fissiles, but also being flexible enough to consume 99% of LWR fuel fissiles and decommisioned weapons fissiles. In the process it also reduces the waste volume enormously by not throwing away 97% of the fuel and cladding like LWRs, but they also eliminate all of the long lived (10,000 year) transuranic wastes that people are concerned about and the fission products decay to lower activity than the starting fuel in 300-500 years. I am not saying that LWR waste is actually a technical problem. It is only a political/knowledge level problem, but the LF-MSR helps with those too.

  • Michael Levi, Michael Krasny,

    Please address yourselves to the issue of Generation-4 nuclear energy. Specifically Liquid-Fuel Thorium Reactors – LFTR

    Its life-cycle CO2 emissions, including mining of raw materials (for concrete and steel), and mining of rare earth minerals (there aren’t any, unlike WWS) are very low, lower than any other proven technology. Even lower than for river Hydroelectric.

    There isn’t any isotope-separation required, so its ore-to-fuel processing emissions of CO2 are near zero.

    Its water consumption is absolutely zero. That is, it doesn’t use ANY water. You can put it in Phoenix.

    It is cheap. My calculation /estimate is $600 Billion to replace every single coal-burner and methane-burner in America.

    It was conceptually proved at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s. Invented by Alvin Weinberg, the same physicist who invented the commercial Light Water Reactor – the foundation of Generations 1, 2 and 3.

    Lets start paying attention to LFTR technology. It really could be a silver bullet.

    my websites:

  • Tyranipocrit

    This guy is making me sick. How can he possibly say that the chemical soup injected and pumped into our groundwater is safe and harmless to the environment? Please disclose the chemicals. What would an America look like with a smog of toxic gases in the air from fracking rigs, undrinkable water, explosive water, flammable water, deadly water? What about all the property rights surrounding these conniving corporations that are basically in the business of land grabbing and theft?

    Just saying it is safe is hardly convincing. You sound ridiculous in the face of the evidence in our face that demonstrates how dangerous deadly and stupid fracking is.

    Micael Levi–you are a joke. Who are you shilling for?

    Why do we need Iran to be scared of us? We dont. Why make friends with Saudi Arabia–the worst human rights record in the world–but then hate on Iran so much–and for what? for what? You dont like the way they dress? It would make more sense to cooperate and work with Iran. You catch more flies with honey.

    Levi says nothing new or innovative or worth listening to. A waste of time.

  • Tyranipocrit

    It is for the government to decide–the gov is supposed to be the PEOPLE. The market is the 1%. Levi makes NO sense. Just a jerk. People live along that ;pipeline’–they decide. Not you Levi. Not your masters of the universe. We are supposed to be in a democracy. So yes, if we are stupid enough to continue fracking and fossil fuels it is up to the people whether it should be train or pipeline–people live along that path. I just hate people like this.

    Read between the lines. When these idiots talk about the market and leaving the government out–they are saying let corporate power RULE us and subtract people, subtract democracy–gov regulation and people power. We don’t live in the United States of Exxon or cheny. We the people need to be involved in these decisions. we need more referendums on these issues. We need direct democracy. representative democracy is a sham–it represents the corporate-aristocracy–NO one else. And Levi is their spokesman.

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