Nuclear Power:

CASEnergy's Whitman says Yucca issues should not halt discussion about benefits

As Congress continues to debate the issue of nuclear repositories, nuclear energy activists are touting this technology as a viable source of clean energy. During today's OnPoint, Christie Todd Whitman, co-chair of Clean And Safe Energy (CASEnergy) explains why she thinks it is important to begin talking to Americans about nuclear energy. She also discusses the licensing issues facing nuclear facilities and talks about nuclear technology as a way to solve the global warming issue.

Transcript

Mary O'Driscoll: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Mary O'Driscoll. Our guest today is Christine Todd Whitman, the former governor of New Jersey and EPA administrator, who has now helped found an organization of utilities, labor unions, interest groups, businesses, and universities in support of new nuclear power plants. Welcome to the show.

Christine Todd Whitman: It's a pleasure, Mary.

Mary O'Driscoll: You helped form this group called Clean and Safe Energy, or CASEnergy for short, with Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore, showing that the case can be made, on an environmental basis, for new nuclear power plants. Now everyone knows, pretty much, that nuclear power doesn't emit any greenhouse gases. Yet it does create a significant amount of nuclear waste that has to be separated from the environment, separated from the public. It's now stored in dry casks at nuclear power plant sites, has no permanent repository to call home. So in light of that, a lot of people wonder, how can nuclear power be so environmentally friendly?

Christine Todd Whitman: Well, for several reasons. The first of all, you're right. And let me just say, that CASEnergy is about more than just the environmental arguments for nuclear. It's really about getting an intelligent discussion going about nuclear that includes everything, all the benefits, the upside, downside, and answering these kinds of questions. And clearly a national repository is something that has got to be dealt with. But it's important to understand that the on-facility storage, the holding tanks for the rods, were designed to hold them for a hundred years. So they really are very safe there at the moment. There is a big push, as I think is very appropriate, to start looking at recycling, because 95 percent of the energy is still there, you ought to be able to recapture it after one use. And you see a lot of that recycling research going on in Europe now. There's a great deal of it happening. It's starting to happen in other places around the world. We should be taking a look at that too. New nuclear facilities are producing now, instead of rods, pellets, so they're easier to deal with. There are a host of things that are coming to fruition that give us some hope that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel on this. And right now the safety issue is one, where they are now it is safe for the foreseeable future. It's not the permanent and never was designed to be the permanent home for the spent rods, and we do need to deal with that. But to refuse to talk about the potential good side of nuclear because of this issue alone, doesn't, I think, make a lot of sense. And what we really should be doing is saying how do we solve this problem? How do we deal with this issue? Or do you just want to take nuclear off the table when you have the Department of Energy that estimates that there's going to be a 45 percent increase in demand, from where we are today, by 2030. And we already have twenty percent of our energy is from nuclear and those are facilities that some of which are going to be closing down in the future.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Well, you touched on several interesting topics. I wanted to start out with the environmental one. You know, talking about greenhouse gas emissions, the big push now is because they produce no emissions. At EPA you took heat from the White House and from your fellow Republicans for your position on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet a fellow Republican, Arnold Schwarzenegger, over in California, has just cut a deal with the legislative Democrats over there to cap emissions in California.

Christine Todd Whitman: Right.

Mary O'Driscoll: And, interestingly, there's a moratorium on new nuclear power plants in that state. So I just raised a couple questions.

Christine Todd Whitman: No, and that's very good, and it's something that the governor is going to have to look at.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK.

Christine Todd Whitman: Because you can't have it both sides, and if you look at California's problems, air emission problems, a lot of them actually are from mobile sources. So California really has to deal with their issue of cars. That's one of their biggest problems from their perspective. So that's where he's going to be trying to get at his greenhouse gases. But ultimately, for their power increases and their power demands, I think they're going to start to look there. I mean you have even countries like France, which are eighty percent nuclear, but very environmentally sensitive. They're expanding their nuclear base. It's happening around the world because they don't produce any of the currently regulated gases. They don't produce greenhouse gases. The footprint of a nuclear facility is actually very small, so that there is a lot that can happen around them that is good for nature because while the footprint of the facility is small, you have a bigger perimeter for safety and security reasons that are totally undeveloped in there. So it's something that we're going to have to have the kind of common-sense approach that says how do we see our way through? And it's precisely because you have initiatives like Governor Schwarzenegger's, which I applied by the way. I mean I think that's a very good initiative. We actually now have some 40 initiatives in 29 states and localities aimed at capping greenhouse gases. And, in fact, even when I was governor back in 1997, we put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions in the state. We started bringing them down. So it's been going on for a long time. But that kind of patchwork quilt is a nightmare for any kind of a business. And so there's going to be pressure on Congress to come up with some kind of a national standard. And when that happens it's going to make other forms of energy - it's going to make nuclear much more competitive with other forms of energy in the start up. That's where nuclear, from a financial point of view, is more expensive. It's just the start up. Once it's online it's much more efficient. And, in fact, is much less expensive than other forms of energy.

Mary O'Driscoll: Do you think what California did will make it easier for the states and for interest groups to say, listen Congress, look what's going on, where California goes, so goes the rest of the country with ...

Christine Todd Whitman: Absolutely. And I think ultimately, again, nuclear isn't the answer. It's not going to be all nuclear and that's what we want to see. It's just got to be a bigger part of the solution than people are willing to talk about today.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. And you think then that California will have to abandon its nuclear moratorium?

Christine Todd Whitman: I wouldn't be at all surprised if they didn't start to reconsider that, because they have got serious grid problems. They've got serious energy demand problems, and they want to continue to grow.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. All right. There appears to be growing interest among utilities in building new nuclear power plants. And Congress, last year, provided in the energy policy act, significant financial and regulatory incentives for the industry to go out and get them licensed and to get them built. And just recently NRC said about 19 companies have signed letters of intent for, I think, 27 reactors, which is more than what they had said in previous years and months. But the real deep interest doesn't appear to be kind of there yet. Constellation Energy is the only company that's actually announced that it's out there looking to buy parts. You have other companies, other utilities, like PP&L, saying that they are going to clean up the emissions from their existing coal plants. So, you know, in light of all of that, I mean did last year's energy bill actually do anything? Was it a significant move? You know, in light of kind of this, there seems to be churning, but no one really taking that first step.

Christine Todd Whitman: Well, next years when you're going to see the change, and that's because of the energy bill and the way they set it up. But next year you will probably see about a dozen consortiums or individual companies come forward with permit requests, or start to get in the pipeline, for permits and licensing for some 17 to 20, as you point out, facilities. It will probably get down to maybe a hard half a dozen. The next step after that is they have to get on that queue that you mentioned, which most people don't recognize is there. For some parts of nuclear reactors, they're only made by one company in one place in the world. And so there is becoming more and more pressure, people want to buy that particular part. So you have to get in line, and you have to buy your place in line and hold that. Then you start to go through the permitting process, and after that, once they have gotten the license, that's when the final decision will be made. When companies will decide what do the economics look like? What does the growth pattern in the area look like? What is the mix of energy that's right and does this make sense to me, for me and my company? But certainly around the Southeast, where you see the biggest projected growth in the near future, there's a lot of interest in nuclear from the states themselves, from some of the communities themselves, as well is from the industries that are located there. And so I think you will see some real action. They will start to move forward.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. It's kind of interesting, you're seeing where there's a lot of nuclear down in the south right now. And that it looks kind of like the way that the LNG plants, you know, where people know the LNG plants, the liquefied natural gas import terminals in the Gulf of Mexico. That's where all the new ones are being built. They're not being built in the areas where the demand really is, in the Northeast or California. Do you see ... is there a danger of that kind of a scenario kind of evolving with nuclear power plants?

Christine Todd Whitman: Well, that's really what CASE is all about, because one of the things that's interesting is they did a study early on, did a survey, that shows that basically the American people, about 58 percent of the American people are comfortable with nuclear. You start talking to them about nuclear and giving them answers to the questions and that goes up to 76 percent very, very quickly. The strongest support for nuclear is in that area closest to the nuclear facility, because they live there. They know them. They know they're safe. They know what they can bring to the community. They know about the high paying jobs and what it does and all of that. And as you get further away from the plant is where you start to get more confusion and less knowledge. But if you can bring some of the knowledge, answer some of the questions, get into a real dialogue with people, then they get much more comfortable much faster. And then it's up to them to decide, yeah, I really am comfortable. Or, no, I still think that there are issues there that mean I don't want to see it in my community. But you're far more likely to get people to be willing to accept a nuclear facility, actually want a nuclear facility, see it as a viable alternative to some of the fossil fuels that we have or many more. I mean coal will always be an important part of our energy mix. That's a given. But people will be much more likely to be accepting of nuclear when they have the facts. And that's what CASE is really about.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. The new combined construction and operating license, the process it's going to go through, is that an important element of what's going on?

Christine Todd Whitman: It really is because one of the big detriments or big obstacles for nuclear, for a facility, for a company to bring nuclear on is just the cost, the time and the cost. Time is money. The permitting process has been so long and taken so long that it can go up to 10 or 20 years. That's money - by the time you get through that process the whole world has changed around you and you may no longer want it. So to put those two things together, A, it makes sense. You're not short-cutting any safety by doing that. And it means that you are shortening, tightening up the process, not skipping any of the steps, but you're tightening the process for the company. And that means it becomes a much more attractive investment to make.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. And then not only is it the people who are nearby and the whole licensing, but you've also got to satisfy Wall Street. And Wall Street is very risk averse.

Christine Todd Whitman: Oh, yeah.

Mary O'Driscoll: And when you got something that's as big as a nuclear power plant that has a payoff over many years and is front-end loaded with a lot of, you know, you've got a lot of upfront expenses that aren't going to be paid off for a long time, compared to the quicker, easier licensing for a gas or coal plant. How do you square that?

Christine Todd Whitman: Well, I'm not sure it's so much quicker and easier for coal-fired or LNG facilities. There haven't been a lot of those built, particularly in the Northeast, as you point out, where there's a lot of demand, because people are afraid of what might happen, having one of those lines located near them in one of those facilities near them. As we get more concerned about the quality of our air and about climate change, coal-fired fossil fuel facilities become a little more problematic. I mean people are starting to look at everything that comes with a facility, an energy facility of any sort. But we're very good in this country at saying no. And we've got to get over that. I mean we say no to new coal. We don't want any new exploration. We don't like being dependent on foreign oil and what that does to us from a policy point of view, as well as a security point of view. We won't talk about nuclear. Even the environmentalists aren't all thrilled on wind power. Hydropower only works when you don't have a drought. And when you have a drought it affects the fish. So we keep saying no, no, no, and yet we all want our power the instant we want it.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right.

Christine Todd Whitman: And so we're going to have to step back and say, look, it's always going to be a mix. There is no one panacea. There's no one form of power that's going to be the solution to everything. But when you have the opportunity to have one that, once it's up and running, you know provides some of the most reliable, it's the most efficient, most reliable, low cost, least environmentally harmful form of energy. It's something we really ought to take a look at.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, the $64,000 question then, what about the uncertainty over Yucca Mountain and the timeline? A lot of people point to that as you don't have Yucca Mountain. That's a real problem. The industry doesn't know where they're going to be putting the waste on a long-term basis. Is that a major concern here when you're looking at it?

Christine Todd Whitman: That clearly is a concern, there's no question about that. A national repository is something that everyone wants. But again, everyone wants, the industry certainly would like to have it. But right now, as I say, the spent rods are stored on-site, in holding ponds that were designed to hold them for a hundred years, and none of them are close to that time frame. So we do have some time to solve that problem. But it's clear the problem has got to be solved, and it needs to be addressed.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Well, that's all we have time for today. Thank you Christine Todd Whitman for joining us.

Christine Todd Whitman: My pleasure.

Mary O'Driscoll: And thank you for joining us. We'll see you next time on OnPoint.

[End of Audio]