Discussing nuclear energy
Dr. Sue Clark, a tenured professor at Washington State University, spoke with nearly 1,100 cadets Feb. 2 at Eisenhower Hall where she lectured on nuclear energy.

WEST POINT, N.Y. (Feb. 10, 2012) -- Is America ready for a nuclear renaissance? This was the topic presented Feb. 2 at Eisenhower Hall for nearly 1,100 cadets enrolled in general and advanced chemistry courses.

Lending an authoritative voice to the subject was Dr. Sue Clark, a regents professor and tenured faculty member at Washington State University. Clark, a fellow of the American Chemical Society, was appointed in July 2011 by the president to serve on the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board which advises Congress and the Secretary of Energy.

Understanding nuclear chemistry and its uses in weapon and energy applications is one of the goals within the core chemistry program at West Point.

The evening's lecture provided cadets with an opportunity to connect course material with the current policy, developments and application of nuclear energy, which Clark discussed in broad terms.

"With these big societal problems, I'm going to be talking at the 30,000 foot view level, but the devil is in the technical details," Clark told the audience, largely from the Class of 2015. "We need very strong chemists, physicists and chemical engineers. So as you think about your majors and what you want to do with your life, I hope you think about some of the opportunities in the technical challenges, discoveries and excitement many of us feel who work in this particular area."

Clark said nuclear energy is and will continue to be a part of the U.S. and global energy mix, so the challenges and risks regarding waste disposal, reduction and proliferation is as relevant as ever. The disaster at the Fukushima reactor facility in Japan illustrated the need for stronger safety mechanisms within the global nuclear industry, Clark said.

"The problem with nuclear is an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere," she said. "When the meltdown occurred, there was this injection of radioactivity into the atmosphere, carried by atmospheric currents across the ocean and was soon detected over Washington State, California and New Mexico within 48 hours of the event."

Clark said nuclear power is the key to China's energy future and the biggest growth in nuclear energy will come from that country. Yet, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster gave them reason to pause, Clark said.

"They had such a tremendous ambition and had been moving their programs forward very quickly," Clark said.

Clark also presented the idea of nuclear being a green energy. Knowing that significant amounts of spent energy exist within the spent fuel, the idea of sustainable fuel cycles requires a way to draw the useful material and return it into the fuel cycle to create a sustainable fuel cycle.

"When you think about nuclear in that way then you can imagine that nuclear is a cleaner part of an overall energy portfolio compared to using fossil fuels," Clark said.

There were no shortage of questions from cadets following the lecture, and more than a dozen held court with Clark for nearly an hour after her presentation.

Among them was Class of 2015 Cadet Brandon Woolf, who said Clark emphasized that the cadets asking the questions about energy today will be responsible for providing the answers in the future.

"She was concise and informative and she really made us think about our role as the future leaders of the Army and the nation," Woolf said.

Woolf said the lecture furthered his understanding of America's energy requirements and that current practices regarding nuclear energy are not conducive to creating a more sustainable society.

"I think what was so encouraging about that was (the cadets') questions generally centered on their role as future leaders in the public discourse," Maj. John Schmitt, Department of Chemistry and Life Science assistant professor, said. "They weren't asking about how to pass this class or how to use this information for the short-term. They were really thinking about how they are going to affect policy at some point on some level and how this subject will affect them."

The subject matter was timely, Schmitt said, and ties in with the Department of Chemistry and Life Science's intent to bring a running dialogue of energy production, consumption and conservation into the classroom.

"And we can do that knowing full well that most of the students in general chemistry won't necessarily become chemical engineering majors," Schmitt said. "But this gives them just that breath of scientific literacy which is one of our course goals."

With West Point selected as one of the Net Zero Energy pilot installations and the academy's involvement with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) initiatives, the hope is to keep the conversation going, Schmitt said.

"The issues surrounding energy are clearly complicated," Schmitt said. "But the more viewpoints and the more facts we give cadets, the better they will be prepared to meet future challenges."

The energy conversation will be ongoing for the foreseeable future, Schmitt said, and lectures like the one Clark presented help keep cadets current.

"The topics surrounding energy are scientific conversations by nature and it is critical that the future leaders of America have the foundational tools to understand and explore them," Schmitt said.

Page last updated Mon February 13th, 2012 at 00:00