The total accumulated U.S. inventory of commercial spent nuclear fuel is about 72,000 tons, virtually all of which is stored at the plant sites. One of the [commission's] draft recommendations is to get consolidated storage for the spent fuel. We have experience transferring military [nuclear] waste; it has an extraordinarily good safety record, as, by the way, does the American nuclear power plant industry. If you don't count people who fell off ladders in nuclear power plants, basically no one has died in a nuclear reactor accident, ever, in this country.
I don't mean to be the proponent of nuclear power. I'm just trying to point out how we do not compare it with alternative [energy source risks]. I believe it would be valuable for nuclear power to be part of our mix.
You grew up in the Bronx and your dad drove a cab. How did you get where you are?
My ambition was to have a job where you wore a white shirt and a tie and you enjoyed what you were doing. Where I grew up, that was a pretty big thing. Oh, and it was important to make at least $100 a week. I studied engineering, which was instant middle class. I studied mechanical engineering, went into industry and hit my hundred-dollar mark. I got my PhD in nuclear engineering. After that, I [worked] on the Nonproliferation Treaty. This was 1970, and I've worked on [nuclear issues] since then.
Would I see you in the photo at the anti-ballistic missile treaty signing in 1972 in Moscow?
No, but I've got lots of thank you letters! It was the first time I'd been exposed to that, where you felt that if you did something wrong, the world could blow up. It clearly was not really true, but there was a sense of the awesome.
Back then nuclear weapons were a binary problem, the U.S. versus the Soviets, with a binary solution. Not now.
At that time there was a remote chance of nuclear war because it required that one of us would do something absolutely loony, knowing it would be suicidal. Today, [with] additional countries or terrorists getting nuclear weapons, the chances of one being used are, I believe, higher, but the consequences are much lower. One nuclear weapon is terrible; it's not as terrible as 10,000. We peaked out between us at about 50,000 [during the Cold War].
Do people conflate domestic and weaponized nuclear power?
Graham Allison and I wrote a paper in the early '80s called "The Utility Director's Dilemma." I remember saying, "This is the most depressing thing I've ever written." You start with the mushroom cloud. You have radiation -- invisible, insidious, eternal. There's cancer. Genetic effects. You take these things in combination, people think, I don't have to know the probability, I don't want this in my neighborhood! Can nuclear reactors blow up like nuclear weapons? No, but there's still some of that in people's minds. They do conflate them.
You once said that a can of worms can be used for catching fish--
Did I say that? That's pretty good!
Your other recent work was on the National Research Council's report on climate change; is it the kind of can of worms you meant?
In climate change, remember you're trying to look 50 years ahead. We have these climate models [but] there's uncertainty. How many people are going to be on Earth? What kind of energy are they going to use? How much greenhouse gas will they put into the atmosphere? What technological breakthroughs might reduce it? This is a risk-management problem. [Some] say, well, we should invest very heavily in research and development for technological breakthroughs rather than tax carbon and spend money now. Others say, that's really risky if you don't come up with a solution. We reaffirmed that climate change is likely primarily due to human activity, that the risks are cause for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and prepare to adapt to it. We believe it is more dangerous to do nothing than to do some things now, but you should revisit [it] all the time.
What do you make of what's happening to the University of California?
We had this great public university, but you didn't have to insert the word "public." [It was] able to compete with the best of the privates. We're losing that. We may already have lost it, in large measure. Students now pay more in tuition fees than the state provides. The resource gap is too great.
It's not as if all the fine professors suddenly will leave for private universities, [but] when you're trying to recruit new people, they're going to have this in mind. Graduate students will consider going where they can get a better financial package.