ECS Lecture | Way Kuo

231st ECS Meeting | New Orleans, LA | May 29, 2017

A Risk Look at Energy Development

Way KuoWay Kuo is president at City University of Hong Kong. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, and a Foreign Member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and Russian Academy of Engineering.

Before joining CityU, he was on the senior management team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dean of Engineering at the University of Tennessee, and Head of the Department of Industrial (and biomedical) Engineering at Texas A&M University. He received his PhD in engineering in 1980 from Kansas State University, and BS in nuclear engineering in 1972 from National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan.

Professor Kuo specializes in design for the reliability of electronics systems and nuclear energy. His 2014 book, Critical Reflections on Nuclear and Renewable Energy, analyses the pros and cons of a spectrum of energies, ranging from petroleum, coal, gas to water, solar, and wind energies as well as nuclear energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011.

He was the first foreign expert invited to discuss nuclear safety following the Fukushima incident. He argues that a holistic view of energy development is required, one that prioritizes the production and use of reliable energy sources over that of polluting and volatile ones. He maps out a policy that encourages and rewards the conservation of energy and efficiency in energy use.

Five Questions for Way Kuo

What led you to nuclear engineering?
When I was young in Taiwan, we did not have enough electricity over the years and the environment was not in good condition. Nuclear engineering was a relatively new subject, and it was able to improve the quality of our energy.

Later on, the energy crisis would become a big issue, so it was obvious that nuclear energy would be one of the future’s energy sources. In the late 60s and early 70s, there weren’t any kind of natural resource in Taiwan; 98 percent of the energy in Taiwan was imported. Therefore, there was a need to look for a better energy supply, which could improve our quality of living.

What are some of the similarities or differences between national labs, industry, and academia that you’ve seen throughout your career?
All of those experiences mingle together. In the early days, I thought academic issues were just pure scientific issues. As I’ve aged, I’ve seen that business and policy are also involved in academia.

For example, at Bell Labs I was able to pick my own research topic. The success of Bell Labs was that free spirit, but the failure of Bell Labs was that they did not have a business mind. Once the government stopped giving money, they started to panic. They never thought that business would have an impact, but now we all know that business does impact research.

We know that the American way of conducting research at a university demands you have resources. You have to identify good problems and have resources to support that research. In order to get resources, you need to be able to present your idea and compete in some way with others. That really tells that business is part of research that you can’t ignore.

Is nuclear energy dangerous?
In my opinion, the main dangers associated with nuclear energy are political and psychological. Compare the casualties of Three Mile Islands, Chernobyl, or Fukishima to the casualties caused by air pollution, which kills at least seven million people ever year, according to the United Nations.

Nuclear power plants haven’t caused even close to the same amount of damage, but there is a great crisis if something happens — people become scared — which makes the risk level very high when implementing nuclear and we need to be extraordinarily careful about if we chose to continue nuclear energy.

How dependent is the world on nuclear energy currently?
The dependence is still quite heavy. As of today, there are already five nuclear power plants in Japan that are currently in operation. They predict that in the next three years, about 42 percent of the previous operating nuclear power plants in Japan will be back into operation. The long-term projection is that Japan will rely on nuclear power.

How do you expect energy to transform around the world?
Every country is developing a lot of renewable energy currently, but the success in storing that energy has been limited. I would say the biggest success is in using solar power, which has improved a lot even within the last five years.

Even so, the percentage is very small; it provides less than 10 percent of the energy supply around the globe. A topic that’s often overlooked is the fact that at least 25 percent of human beings are living without any energy or electricity. They don’t have good medical care and a lot don’t have any medical care at all. The kids don’t have education, they don’t eat a lot of cooked food, and their life expectancy is very short. The life expectancy for those without energy is only around 50 years old. A lot of disease come from these areas, and these diseases will affect you and me.

This is not an isolated problem. It’s a problem we should look at for everyone on earth; it’s a global issue. We generally don’t pay much attention until some crisis occurs, including with nuclear energy. We need to do more research in energy and create new technology, and we need to continue looking for better solutions for everyday living.