EcoCar Inspires College Car Engineers, But Maybe Some Could Major in Nukes

Last Updated May 25, 2010 6:20 AM EDT

YUMA, ARIZONA -- It's an open secret that the U.S. has lost its edge in nuclear technology -- how could it be otherwise, when the last big nuke plant construction boom was in the 1960s, and it's been 40 years since a new plant was commissioned? One of the main reasons nukes stayed on the drawing boards during eight years of a very nuke-friendly Bush Administration is that the U.S. lacks trained nuclear engineers.

If we're not going to cede this high-tech field to the French and Asians, we'd need to inspire students to go into a field they've largely abandoned for other forms of clean tech. Interestingly enough, I'm in Arizona because the U.S. government and carmakers are collaborating on a three-year collegiate engineering project called EcoCar that has 16 university-based teams competing to build the best green vehicle in terms of fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions. The enthusiasm of the teams is absolutely inspiring, and many graduate students with wrenches in hand told me they planned to become auto engineers.

I'd like to think we could do something similar that would get young minds thinking about designing safer nuclear plants that solve the intractable waste storage problem.

I talked to Kristen De La Rosa, who is directing the EcoCar effort for the Department of Energy. "There are nuclear engineers," she said. "But they're mostly working on submarines. The DOE sponsors this kind of competition for solar design, for energy-efficient buildings, and for environmental cars. There's talk of a geothermal competition. We would do a nuclear program with the aim of seeding the industry with young engineers if we thought there was demand in the nuclear field, but we don't think there is now."

That's kind of amazing, isn't it? All this talk of new nukes and no demand for nuclear engineers? The Tennessee Valley Authority will tell you that nuclear power accounts for 70 percent of U.S.-based emission-free energy, and that polls show 62 percent of Americans favoring the technology. The Obama administration, which to the dismay of some environmentalists likes both "clean coal" and nukes, has proposed tripling federal loan guarantees for new nuclear construction (to $57.5 billion).

Because nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gas, some environmentalists have abandoned decades of opposition to support new nuke construction. Others are on the fence, because nuclear power still has huge drawbacks, not the least of them being extremely high construction costs, drawn-out licensing processes and NIMBY opposition. The Yucca Flats nuclear storage facility in Nevada is no closer to opening than it ever was. The more optimistic scenarios say it will take 10 to 15 years before plants can get online.

All of that is precisely why we need to bring some young engineering talent into the fold, and EcoCar provides a good model. The competition kicked off in 2008, with the teams receiving identical Saturn Vue SUVs (I know, a defunct brand now.) The teams are from both technical colleges like Texas Tech, Georgia Tech and Missouri University of Science and Technology and mainstream schools such as the University of Wisconsin and Ohio State.

A model for measuring greenhouse gases and transportation energy use developed at Argonne National Laboratory will be used to make a "well to wheels" analysis of the college teams' vehicles in what is the second year of a three-year program. In Arizona, the cars are being assessed for production readiness. Some of the cars will be rough, but others will offer innovative engineering solutions to problems that have baffled the OEMs. That's how progress happens!

The teams I talked with have built battery cars, hybrid electrics, extended-range cars like the Chevrolet Volt and biodiesel burners. Tomorrow I'll offer a report from the field on the technology on display, but I'm optimistic about America's young engineering talent and what they'll come up with.