Rush Holt, the Jeopardy! Computer-Defeating Ph.D. Physicist Congressman, on Japan’s Nuclear Crisis

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Representative Rush Holt, who made headlines last month as the lone human to beat IBM’s Watson computer in a Jeopardy! showdown, has an unusually spot-on set of qualifications for talking about nuclear power. A Ph.D. physicist, he worked on nuclear-weapons policy at the State Department before moving to Princeton University, where he directed fusion-energy research at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Since 1999, he’s represented New Jersey’s 12th district in Congress. He did not respond to each of our requests, Trebek-style, in the form of a question, but he did offer a clear-headed view of America’s energy situation in general, and our reliance on nukes in particular. (Full disclosure: My father worked with him at PPPL, and also lent a hand on one of Holt’s campaigns.)

Is the United States likely to see an event like the one at Fukushima?
I don’t know this in detail, but I think that we’re generally no better regulated than Japan is. If it could happen in Japan, it could happen here. But we don’t get quite so many tsunamis or earthquakes. I think it could happen here, and what struck me about all this is that everybody seems suddenly surprised that nuclear reactors are dangerous. Of course they’re dangerous! We knew that. That’s why we’ve insisted on such regulation over the years.

We build them and try to anticipate the worst.
We need energy. Americans are always looking for things on the cheap — a magic solution. For some people, recently, it’s been drilling offshore. If we would only drill offshore, and drill on public lands, we’d have enough oil. Well, that’s nonsense. We will never have enough supply domestically to meet our needs, if we stay this dependent on oil. For others, it’s fission. But I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think we can rely on nuclear fission into the future. I’m not strongly anti-nuclear. I’m not saying shut down nuclear plants; I’m not even saying don’t build any more, because a few plants one way or the other don’t make much difference. I’m just saying, we’ve got to go into this with our eyes open.

What’s coming on the scene now is hydro-fracking, in New York and Texas and Oklahoma, and it seems wonderful — we’ve got all of this gas — and gas production through hydro-fracking has grown by a hundred in the past dozen years. And it’s getting a little ahead of itself, and we’re discovering that it’s not so clean and neat after all. We need a good energy strategy that really thinks about these things. None of these are cost-free — your dream energy. Though I still think fusion has real promise.

When I was a kid, they used to say we’d have a working fusion power plant by 2020, in 40 years. And here we are, getting close to that date, and a power plant is still a very long way off.
Yes, but there was an assumption of a billion dollars a year. If we’d been spending a billion a year since 1976, when those predictions were made, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’d had functional plants by now. The way I look at it, is we’re 35 billion dollar-years away. You can spend a quarter-billion dollars a year for a century or so, or a billion a year for 35 years. I guess it wouldn’t work if you spent $35 billion in one year. [Laughs.]

So alternatives are as much a question of political will as of technology.
With every uprising in the Middle East and every earthquake like this one, it becomes obvious that we have to do it. That we can’t just let energy evolve as the market says, year to year, and think that our needs will be met. I mean, I would think that if we really understood the costs of petroleum, and fracked gas, and nuclear fission, offshore wind would look a lot more attractive, and we would be building turbines off Long Island and New Jersey and Delaware a lot faster than we are.

Speaking of the Jersey coast, there’s a nuclear plant in Forked River called Oyster Creek, pretty near your district. It’s a lot like the one in Japan.
It’s a boiling-water plant, Mark I, so it’s similar to the Fukushima designs. It’s pretty old, it is in pretty good repair, and it seems to be well run. But I do think that one of the things that’s likely to come out of the Japanese experience will be a thorough review of the older reactors. At least that would make sense.

One thing that’s struck me in the coverage is that the reactor isn’t the problem. It’s the storage pool full of exhausted fuel that’s causing most of the trouble.
It’s interesting ... nobody ever thought of that. I mean, some people have thought, in the case of terrorist attacks, of a plane crashing into it or something. But if the water is circulating to keep it cool, it can boil away in a few days, and we’ve now seen that it’s just as bad as when the core catches fire. In fact, it might be worse, because depending on how recently you’ve refueled your reactor, the rods in the swimming pool might even be more numerous.

So do problems like this come out of not enough oversight? Are the NRC people too close to the companies, like GE and Westinghouse, that build power plants?
They used to be a little cozier than they are now. There is maybe not as much independence as one would like, but there’s a good measure of independence. Of course, any regulator is somewhat dependent on the data that’s produced by the company, and somewhat limited by the access granted by the company. You hear reports, but I think the NRC people are by and large independent, by and large diligent, by and large smart and well-trained.

It’s a textbook argument for big government — a case of doing something the free market can’t.
The market won’t fix our overall energy problem — I don’t care what they say. People say, Remove the regulations and let everyone drill offshore. You’ll end up with a lot more gulf explosions. Furthermore, the private sector could’ve built wind turbines a long time ago, but they didn’t — they were kinda slow. There’s clearly a place for government incentives here, and government regulations, in all aspects of our energy production. It’s too important to just leave it to faith in the ideal action of the market.

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