Erich Schneider

Photo Credit: Mariana Munoz | Daily Texan Staff

Nuclear energy could be the solution to providing the world with both clean and reliable power, according Kirk Sorensen, founder of Flibe Energy, during The Future for Nuclear panel discussion at UT Energy Week on Tuesday.

“[Nuclear energy] is our biggest contributor to clean energy, and the most important part that needs to be emphasized over and over again about nuclear energy is that it’s reliable,” Sorensen said.

Nuclear energy is efficient and reliable enough that it will likely replace coal in the future, Sorensen said.

An abundance of resources, such as uranium, available for sustaining nuclear energy is another reason for its feasibility, according to UT mechanical engineering professor Erich Schneider. The United States currently holds 7 million tons of conventional uranium resources, in comparison to 3 million tons in 1965, Schneider said. 

“What’s happened is that consistently we have found more uranium than we’ve taken out of the ground,” Schneider said.

The United States produces 30 percent of the world’s nuclear generation of electricity, ranking the country as the world’s largest producer of nuclear power, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Many members of the public tend to overlook nuclear energy’s benefits because of a wide-spread misconception that nuclear waste damages the environment, according to Vicky Bailey, Nuclear Matters Leadership Council member.

“Public perception is very key,” Bailey said. “It can stop any project.”

In order to sway public opinion, people in the nuclear energy industry should focus on informing and educating policy makers, stakeholders and students about the benefits of nuclear energy, Bailey said. It’s also important to acknowledge and address public concern, Bailey said.

“You have to say they’re legitimate concerns,” Bailey said. “The effort will be to try to get fact and science-based information out as best you can.”

The University of Texas also contributes to the nuclear energy arena through research in the Nuclear and Radiation Engineering program with support from other areas of campus, such as the Ferguson Structural Engineering Laboratory and Jackson School of Geosciences, according to Steven Biegalski, director of the Nuclear Engineering Laboratory. Research focuses at the University include nuclear reactor development, structures and concrete for future nuclear builds, testing methodology and the future of resources. 

The state of Texas itself contributes to nuclear energy’s long-term feasibility, Biegalski said. Texas currently has two uranium mines that contribute to the world’s uranium supply. 

“I think there is a lot of nuclear play — not only within the University of Texas, but also within the state of Texas,” Biegalski said.

Ask UT students what they think about nuclear weapons and you’re likely to get answers referencing the Cold War and American history class. But the threat nuclear weapons pose should be an immediate concern. The Iranian nuclear program, in particular, should be the topic of  a national discussion.

Iran’s first nuclear program began in the 1960s, but it made little progress and was abandoned after the revolution in 1979. In the mid-1990s, Iran began constructing facilities for a new nuclear energy program, and by 2005, Iran was enriching uranium. Currently, Iran operates 10,000 centrifuges, devices that separate the isotope uranium-235 from uranium-238, the former of which is needed to make a nuclear bomb.

In the Aug. 30th International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear program, Iran declared 16 nuclear facilities and nine locations outside these facilities where nuclear material is regularly used. Low-grade uranium is used in research reactors, but uranium enriched above 20 percent can be used for the construction of weapons. Three months before the August report, another IAEA inspection discovered 27 percent-enriched uranium at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant in Qum, Iran.

Erich Schneider, associate professor of nuclear and radiation engineering at UT, puts these findings in perspective: “From an engineering point of view, if you’re only designing your enrichment plant to go up to 20 percent uranium, the odds of finding a measurable collection of uranium atoms all clumped together that are 27 percent enriched is astronomical ... you can’t accidentally produce stuff that’s 7 percent more than what you were intending.” When asked if Iran could easily go undetected in producing a nuclear weapon, Schneider said, “If we can collect samples then it’s easy to detect. What happened was they slipped up and we were able to get a sample of what they didn’t want us to see, which, in my mind, is definitive proof they’re going over 20 percent.”

The U.S. State Department considers Iran the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism as it consistently provides funding, weapons, training and sanctuary to numerous terrorist groups throughout the region.  

According to Alan Kuperman, coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project and professor in the LBJ School of Public Policy, “Iran would be the first country with clear formal ties to international terrorism to acquire nuclear weapons.” One of the many consequences of Iran attaining nuclear weapons is that the country would then be in a position to transfer them to its terrorist allies.

Another cause for concern is the political leverage Iran would gain in the region.  “Everyone should sleep less with a nuclear-capable Iran, because their leadership has shown time and time again that they are unpredictable — they make threats against other sovereign nations — I wouldn’t trust a country like Iran to be a responsible steward of a technology like this,” Schneider said.

Currently, the Obama administration is taking the diplomatic route, applying biting sanctions and offering bilateral negotiations. In the third and last presidential debate on foreign policy, Obama said, “We have put in the toughest, most crippling sanctions ever ... their currency has dropped 80 percent, their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting Iraq 20 years ago.” But while Iran is feeling the effects of these sanctions, they have not yet surrendered their nuclear program. In fact, they have nearly completed an underground nuclear enrichment plant, having added an additional 3,000 centrifuges to the Fordow plant.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official who now studies the Iranian nuclear program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said, “When slapped with new sanctions, Iran typically likes to pick up the pace of its enrichment work to try to show that it can’t be pressured into submission.” Fordow is designed to enrich medium-grade uranium that is near the threshold needed for a nuclear weapon. American officials worry that, in the near future, this fuel could be converted for use in a bomb.

While views on how to respond to a nuclear Iran and which path is the right one for American policy to take still vary greatly, our professors believe that UT students need to raise their voices and let U.S. officials know that they are conscientious of the need to prevent the emergence of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Steven Biegalski, director of the Nuclear Engineering Teaching Lab at UT, put it this way: “Students need to remain knowledgeable on nuclear matters and international policy and how [a nuclear Iran would] affect them.” He stated the importance of voicing our “input within the U.S. political process to influence how the U.S. will interact with Iran and react to Iran.” As students, we have the capacity to effect meaningful change. Not long from now, the window to do so will likely close.

Maidenberg is a Plan II sophomore from Houston.