If you’ve ever been curious about nuclear energy, check out this interview with nuclear engineer Dr. Mehdi Sarram. He received his post graduate degree in Nuclear Engineering at University of Michigan in 1967 and received his honorary doctorate at University of Tehran in 1969. He has worked for a variety of organizations, such as the UN International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Korea Electric Power Corporation, Raytheon, AREVA and University of Tehran. With over 50 years of nuclear energy experience, 30 of which saw him specializing in climate change, Dr. Sarram is well-informed and willing to share his wealth of information with us.
Art by Jessica Kamman
For the general population, can you briefly describe what nuclear energy is?
There is this element that is radioactive in nature called uranium. It is very heavy; its density is 19 times the density of the water you drink. And if you hit this element with low energy neutrons, under certain conditions nuclear fission occurs. Imagine you have a large soccer ball and you hit it with a very small marble ball which causes the soccer ball to break up - in a process we call fission - fission means ‘breaking up.’ Mass cannot be destroyed, so when fission occurs, mass becomes energy. That energy is called nuclear energy. Essentially you break up uranium atoms with these thermal-neutrons, you produce heat, heat produces steam, then high pressure steam runs through a steam turbine whose rotating shaft produces electricity in an electric generator, and electricity goes to your home. Yes, it is that simple.
In what ways is nuclear energy a better alternative to oil or coal?
Let’s talk about carbon footprint. Every source of energy produces carbon, the question is: how much? To make it simple, if you have 10 light bulbs, 100 watts each at your home right now, then in 1 hour, they require 1 kilowatt of power. Coal is about 100-200 times worse than nuclear energy in terms of carbon footprint. For nuclear power, about 5-10 grams of carbon are produced per kilowatt of electricity only, as compared to 1000 grams for coal.
How does the US’ stance on nuclear energy compare with other countries?
Back in the 1950s the world got the nuclear technology from us—we were the leaders. Today we are at least 10 years behind. The rest of the world like Japan, South Korea, and Russia are now in the lead. But we still are the best because our nuclear plants are safe and reliable producing about 20% of the electricity produced in the US. It is not all doom and gloom, but we are way down. If we were on step 10 of a latter 50 years ago, we are around step 5-6. It’s the public fear, cost, politics, and lack of government support. In other countries, like South Korea, the government supports building nuclear power plants. California banned all construction of nuclear power plants within state lines. California, where I live, is the most anti-nuclear state in the country.
How is nuclear waste disposed of?
When you burn coal or wood you get ash and waste. When we fission uranium, you get nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is nothing but what is left after you break up uranium atoms, which are radioactive, such as strontium or cesium. After a year or two of reactor operation, we take some of these fuel elements out of the nuclear reactor pressure vessel and we put them under 20-foot pool of pure water for shielding. After about 10 years of storage in the pool, we take the fuel elements out of the pool and since they are still radioactive, we put the fuel assemblies in special canisters underground at reactor sites until a permanent nuclear waste repository is operational, such as Yucca Mountain site. This is a safe operation and all 450 nuclear plants in the world have been doing the same at their sites.
Sadly, our politics caused the shutdown of the US national repository, Yucca Mountain. Hence in 2021 all 97 US nuclear plants are forced to store their nuclear waste on their own site. The nuclear waste that is produced by the largest nuclear power plant in the world is small as compared to waste produced by a coal plant which produces the same power. All fossil fuels are very bad for our environment. A major public misconception is that NO nation has ever built a nuclear weapon using a commercial nuclear plant producing electricity.
Do you believe nuclear energy will be used more in the future, and that we will overcome previously mentioned concerns?
Yes. I’m optimistic, but it’s going to be difficult. In January 2021, we have about 450 power plants producing about 10% of the electricity of the world. The International Atomic Energy Agency, where I worked, predicts the world will build another 450 nuclear plants by 2050. In 2050, for your generation, I hope that we will have more than 15% of the electricity of the world to come from nuclear power which is clean. I wish it would be 25%, but it’s impossible for many reasons such as the need for highly specialized nuclear staff, cost, resources, public acceptance and complexity of building nuclear plants in less developed nations. Nuclear power should not be the only source of sustainable energy. We should maximize the use of all 6 renewable energy sources (wind, solar, biomass, tidal ocean, geothermal and hydro) by 2050. Eventually in about 100 years all the uranium, oil, and gas in the world will be gone. We will be using fusion energy that the world scientists are currently working on.
What advice would you give to the students reading this? How can they contribute to a more sustainable future?
The future is for the future generation, the students, not the older generation like me. I wish they would pursue science. Science, including nuclear science, which is not all that difficult if you put your heart into it. Scientists solve the problems of climate change,not the politicians. So, my advice to students would be to read and understand this article, do not listen to politicians, study, travel the world, pursue science, and try to be
part of the transition to a world with clean energy by 2050.
Last comment — I tell my students this and now I’m going to tell you, I have been doing what I love to do all of my 50 years of professional life and money has been the consequences of what I did, not the other way around.
Pursue your dreams and follow your heart, become who you want to be, because 30 years from now I want you to tell your children that you would do exactly what you did to become who you are now. NO regrets.
If you want to hear more from Dr. Sarram, check out his book: “Nuclear Lies, Deceptions and Hypocrisies.”