Meet Sherri Goodman, the new independent member of Lightbridge’s Board of Directors. She chairs our Energy Security and National Security Committee, and has formerly served as the first Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, where she focused on environmental security.
We sat down with Sherri to ask about the role of nuclear energy in ensuring energy security and meeting global climate goals.
”The greater security risk is if don’t bend the curve on fossil fuels”, says Sherri Goodman.
Sherri Goodman was the first US Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Environmental Security from 1993 to 2001. Looking back, she sees those years as the US military’s first era of environmental awakening.
”This was when the military closed bases after the cold war and we cleaned them up. The military started protecting endangered species, complied with environmental laws, engaged with other militaries around the world to exchange best practices in environmental protection, and used military-to-military cooperation as a way to build trust and promote democracy and civilian control over the military,” she says.
”That era then opened up the era of climate awakening, in understanding both the international security impacts of climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’, a phrase that I coined for the CNA military advisory board in 2007, and then also enabling the Department of Defense to be a clean energy leader on its way to transform how we use energy for defense purposes.”
As the climate crisis has worsened, have you noticed that security threats have changed?
”Security threats have certainly accelerated since we wrote our first report in 2007. Back then we were talking about projected and potential climate change. Today we live with daily evidence of climate risks. Rising temperatures, rising sea levels, extreme weather events on a regular basis, and terms that we didn’t even have in the lexicon back 15 years ago, like bomb cyclone and derecho. The head of the National Guard Bureau has even said ‘It's not a wildfire season anymore. It’s year-round we’re deploying firefighters and often military backup to those firefighters.
We have the prolonged drought that has sent millions into food and water insecurity much across the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia. And we have the permafrost melt, which along with sea ice retreat and rising temperatures in the Arctic has transformed that whole region into an ocean that is open for navigation and increasingly a source of conflict and tension instead of a source of cooperation as it used to be. So much has changed.”
The megadrought that gripped southwestern United States in 2022, made the Great Salt Lake in Utah shrink to historic lows. (Siddarth Machado / Flickr Creative Commons)
What does energy security mean, and how does it tie into climate change?
”Energy security at its most basic level means having reliable sources of power for various needs. It means being protected against risks that threaten you. One of the major risks today is climate change. Energy is also at risk from cyber-attacks and deliberate attacks. So when we think about having more secure energy we want it to be secure against all those risks.
Trucking fuel to the front for combat put thousands of American soldiers' and marines’ lives at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eight out of ten of our military convoys in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts were about logistics: ammunition, fuel and water. We learned the hard way that we need to have more distributed, in theatre sources of energy and water, not transporting it at great economic cost and putting lives at risk. This means being able to fuel the fight, or power the fight, more locally. Renewables can do some of that job today. Better batteries, solar, microgrids, potentially even microreactors can help form some of that function.”
How should everyday people think about nuclear energy in the concept of climate goals and energy security?
”Nuclear energy traditionally in the US has been about 20 percent of baseload power, and unfortunately the US hasn’t built many nuclear plants in recent decades. One reason is that we haven’t fully solved the waste storage issue. It’s a solvable problem, but the politics are more intractable than the technology. And we haven’t invested a lot in innovating in this area, so other countries, particularly Russia and China, have taken a global beat on the US in the global nuclear power market. This is a serious risk for American national security and global security, because right now we are not producing enough of our own nuclear fuel for our own reactors. We’re importing uranium from Russia, and that’s a bad situation. The US is finally working to restore that, but none of this happens overnight. We’ve got to reset our own nuclear energy industry and have American nuclear energy leadership that is based on advanced reactor technologies that are both safer and cheaper, while simultaneously providing the energy that will meet the needs of the future.”
How do you respond to people that say nuclear energy is a security risk, rather than a security reward?
”The greater security risk is if we don’t bend the curve on fossil fuels. The mounting CO2 in the atmosphere is fueling the climate crisis that we face, and this will make large areas and some of our cities unlivable and lead to further waves of climate migration. We’ve got to bend that curve. We’ve seen historical transitions in energy use from fire, steam and coal, to oil, to the nuclear age, which occurred during and after World War II. We are now into new forms of renewables, but we also have an opportunity with the new era of nuclear energy - fission energy. At some point we’ll hit fusion, which is sort of just coming into focus right now. It is not yet a scalable source of energy, but maybe it will be in your lifetime.
I’m a technology optimist. We have made the world better for millions more. I still remember the days before there were any cellphones. When I was in college, there weren’t even desktop computers, let alone mobile phones. Advances can be made, and we have to keep moving forward.”
How does military spending on fossil fuels, rather than clean energy, affect security?
”Today's focus is on having energy supportability in contested logistics environments. Now that’s a mouthful, but let me break that down. In a perfect world, you might have tanks that run only on batteries and aircraft powered by sustainable aviation fuels. But also in a perfect world, you wouldn’t have any combat or war. We haven’t achieved that level of perfection, and I don’t think we will be able to achieve that in my lifetime. What we can do is reduce the fuel burden by looking at alternatives and more sustainable sources of the existing liquid fuels – that’s all possible. Until about a decade ago, the military assumed it would always have enough energy to get to whatever combat situation was called upon for our troops. Once you recognize that there could be shortages in those energy supplies or that you are putting lives at risk, it becomes clearer that we need to innovate to better power our armed forces. So that’s what’s happening today.
The other Gordian knot that’s finally been broken is the concept that for a better-performing weapon system, you have to have more fuel. Now there are better propulsion systems, better batteries, and different types of fuels for aircraft and ships. And nuclear is part of the equation as well. We have had a nuclear navy since just after the cold war, it’s operated safely and very effectively, and we have nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, so we know how to use nuclear technology safely and now that we are on the cusp of a new generation of nuclear technology. We have the opportunity to make that a part of the decarbonized future.”
Lightbridge’s metallic fuel using surrogate materials. (Image: Lightbridge)
A recent peer-reviewed article found that the design of Lightbridge fuel rods consumes 5.5 times more weapons-grade plutonium than traditional fuel, and also that would-be proliferators cannot use Lightbridge's spent fuel. How do you view the role of Lightbridge Fuel in fostering peace and stability?
”You’ve got nuclear energy for civilian purposes, which has to be part of the clean energy transition. Then you’ve got nuclear weapons and all the fissile materials that are used to build nuclear weapons, which is the continuing legacy of the cold war. We’re not going to get rid of those, and we have more plutonium on the planet than we need.
The risk with plutonium and other certain nuclear fuels is that they can be converted into weapons-grade material. Lightbridge has technology that will enable weapons-grade plutonium to be converted and used for peaceful purposes. This solves two problems at once. It helps get rid of that weapons-grade plutonium material, and at the same time, it provides clean power. That’s the goal. I hope we can get there. That’s a win-win situation.”