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Increasing the role of science in energy policy

February 24, 2014
Ker Than

From nuclear waste to strategic minerals for renewable energy, Rod Ewing wants to inject more science into long-term solutions. The recipient of a PhD in geology from Stanford in 1974, Ewing returns to The Farm with joint appointments in the School of Earth Sciences and the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Rod Ewing

Rod Ewing is accustomed to taking the long view. As one of the nation’s leading experts on nuclear materials, Ewing thinks about how to dispose of the radioactive wastes generated by nuclear power plants in ways that are safe for future generations living hundreds, thousands, even a million, years from now.

“In the U.S., we don’t have a way forward,” said Ewing, who joined the School of Earth Sciences faculty in January as a Professor of Geological and Environmental Sciences.

“We used to have a program to create a geological repository for nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but that’s gone. Currently, the used fuel from nuclear reactors is stored on site, either in pools or large dry casks, and it stays there. Over the long run, this is not an acceptable solution.”

Devising safe ways to dispose of nuclear waste requires the engagement of scientists, as well as policy makers, engineers, utility companies, and local communities. It is this interdisciplinary approach that attracted Ewing to Stanford, where in addition to being a faculty member in the School of Earth Sciences, he also serves as the first Frank Stanton Professor in Nuclear Security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), which is located in the Freeman Spogli Institute.

“Stanford wants me in both units,” Ewing said. “This is an opportunity to follow research and policy wherever it may lead. Prior to this, in my traditional science departments, people were interested in the science, and if I published papers related to policy, that was not considered as useful.”

Ewing’s endowed chair was recently established with a $5 million gift from the Stanton Foundation to CISAC to aid the center in its longstanding mission to build a safer world through rigorous policy research in nuclear security. Before arriving at Stanford, was a professor at the University of Michigan.

Ewing is no newcomer to Stanford. He earned his PhD here in geology in 1974, and since then has written extensively on issues related to nuclear waste management. In 2012, he was appointed by President Barack Obama to serve as chair of the U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, which is responsible for the technical review of Department of Energy activities related to transporting, packaging, storing and disposing of spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.

At Stanford, Ewing is teaching a course related to nuclear security issues and is working to develop other classes for both graduate and undergraduate students that will span different disciplines. “I particularly want to develop classes that will draw Earth scientists into thinking about the policy applications of their work,” he said.

Ewing is also conducting research in the School of Earth Sciences that will focus on the response of materials to extreme environments, such as inside of a nuclear reactor. “There is a practical interest because new types of materials may form under extreme conditions that have never been previously synthesized,” he said. “And in some cases, these new materials may have very useful properties.”

Ewing plans to recruit additional graduate students to join his research group. “I am very interested in students who work in both CISAC and the School of Earth Sciences,” he said.

Science, Technology and Policy

According to Earth Sciences Dean Pamela A. Matson, Ewing will help the school define a program in strategic minerals. “This is an area of renewed interest to us, particularly in light of the need for these resources in renewable energy technologies,” said Matson,the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth Sciences. “To address the sustainability challenges of the 21st century, we need to both innovate in science and technology areas, and also understand the social and political environments in which decisions are made – and Rod does both. We believe he will help us build a strong partnership between the School of Earth Sciences and CISAC, thus strengthening Stanford’s efforts to solve critical environment and energy problems.”

Developing a more comprehensive approach to thinking about the environmental impacts of different energy sources is also among Ewing’s priorities. For example, nuclear energy has very limited associated CO2 emissions, and the volume of waste that is generated, while potent and long-lived, is relatively small. Thus, it might seem like a favorable energy source from an environmental perspective. But the cost-benefit equation changes if one factors in the possibility of a nuclear accident such as the one that occurred at Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant in 2011 following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that triggered a devastating tsunami.

“Let’s say that we are so concerned about global warming that we flip the switch and move to nuclear,” Ewing said. "The expansion of nuclear power means there are more chances of nuclear accidents in the future. So how does one weigh the pros and cons? Is one Fukushima okay in the context of reducing carbon dioxide emissions?”

Ewing said he wants to use his scientific training to help further the discussions of this and other issues related to nuclear energy and wastes. “In CISAC I want to first educate myself and understand more about policy and how it's developed,” he said, “but I also want to see if I can be successful in injecting more science into the discussion.”

Ker Than is the associate director of communications for the School of Earth Sciences. Beth Duff-Brown of the Freeman Spogli Institute contributed to the article.