Nuclear Power

NEI's Coyle, Public Citizen's Hauter debate the future of nuclear power in the U.S.

The nuclear industry is running more efficiently than ever, but it faces several huge problems: The plan to store high-level waste at Yucca Mountain continues to face delays and funding battles, and no new plants have been built in decades. Will new nuclear plants be built in the United States? Is nuclear power necessary to meet growing electricity demand? Nuclear industry critic Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen and the Nuclear Energy Institute's Mike Coyle join OnPoint to debate these questions.


Mary O'Driscoll: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Mary O'Driscoll. Today we're talking about the future of nuclear power with Mike Coyle, vice president of Nuclear Operations for the Nuclear Energy Institute and Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Environment and Energy Project. Also joining us today is my colleague Ben Geman, reporter with E&E Daily and Greenwire. Mr. Coyle, I wanted to ask you, there seems to be a paradox of the nuclear industry right now where the industry is operating in a much safer and more efficient manner than ever before, yet you're facing some problems with Yucca Mountain with the funding problems and with legal problems that will delay the project for at least another few years. How do you tie this all together to create this future of nuclear power where things are going to really expand?

Mike Coyle: Well, you're correct. The industry is working at the highest levels of performance in the history of the program. We're very excited about the future prospects for nuclear energy as filling part of the energy mix necessary for the United States, as a supply of clean and reliable sustainable power. The Yucca Mountain issue is obviously one that we are watching and following very closely, however the timing on Yucca Mountain really doesn't impact the future of potential new construction of nuclear plants. We have the ability today, and have had all along, the ability to safely store our used fuel and the fuel pools that are resident in the reactor buildings and for those places that their fuel pools are full we have developed a method of safely and securely storing the fuel in a dry state on-site.

Mary O'Driscoll: Right. There had been such a, just to kind of follow up on that, the call for Yucca Mountain and the push to really get Yucca Mountain built was because there was this crisis of storage at the nuclear power sites, at the nuclear reactor sites. Is that just not as much of a big deal anymore?

Mike Coyle: I don't know that there was really a crisis. I think what, we were facing a decision as to which direction we were going to go and when it became apparent that Yucca Mountain was going to be experiencing the delays that have manifested here over the last couple of years the industry decided that they would seek the alternative of going to the dry storage.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. Wenonah, I wanted to ask you, nuclear power, as we talked, there's this paradox where they're operating much more efficiently than they ever have before, with that efficient and safer operation that they've got, what's not to like about nuclear power?

Wenonah Hauter: Well nuclear power is an old, outdated and dangerous technology that's received more than its fair share of federal subsidies. The congressional research service did report a couple of years ago and they found that just in research and development the federal government has spent $74 billion. Today the industry produces about 20 percent of the electricity used in the United States and this is after 40 to 50 years of promoting nuclear power. We still have no way to safely dispose of nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is deadly for hundreds of thousands of years and the prospect of transporting nuclear waste across this country on the roads and rails, through 44 states and the District of Columbia, is very frightening, especially in these days of terrorism when every shipment could potentially be a dirty bomb.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK. I wanted just to stay on just the waste issue just one more time. Mr. Coyle, I wanted to ask you about the, you know, with Harry Reid as the Senate minority leader, is there any chance that you'll be able to overcome the funding problem which is tied to the appropriations and to be able to get Yucca Mountain off budget? Is there any way that you're ever going to payable to do that with him in control?

Mike Coyle: Well first of all, I'd kind of like to take issue with a little bit of this contention about being subsidized. The money for Yucca Mountain has come out of a fund that we have developed from operating our plants. There's a, for each of the nuclear generators, there's a tax, a small tax, on each kilowatt that we generate. That is where the money comes from for the nuclear waste fund. It's not subsidized. It comes directly from our ratepayers. The question about Harry Reid and his impact, obviously Senator Reid has a very deep interest in protecting the citizens of Nevada as we do as well. Our goal is to provide for a safe repository in Yucca Mountain and also to safely transport the materials. Now interestingly enough, despite what Wenonah said, over the last 40 years we've made over 3,000 shipments of fuel with no impact, no injuries, no threat to the environment as a result of that. So we believe that we can safely transport that material from the sites where it currently resides to Yucca Mountain and not endanger the public.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK.

Ben Geman: Wenonah, actually just as a quick follow up on that. At this point, looking at where Yucca is, does your organization and other antinuclear advocates have the muscle to stop it?

Wenonah Hauter: Oh yes, we don't believe that Yucca Mountain will ever actually come to fruition, there are too many problems. Both the geological problems, the earthquakes, there have been 600 some earthquakes that are at least 2.5 on the Richter scale since 1976 and 1992. There was one 12 miles away that was 5.7. The problems with corrosion, if waste ever is stored there, the metal casks, when exposed to moisture, the environment was thought to be dry and it actually isn't. The volcanic activity, there's an argument about. There are just numerous problems and if the nuclear industry is going to be able to store waste there they're going to have to go into Congress and use their political muscle, campaign contributions and so forth to overturn the D.C. Court of Appeals decision that says that the radiation standards that were developed are not safe.

Ben Geman: Actually, picking up on the congressional theme for a moment, Mike, your organization was recently testifying before a House subcommittee on energy policy and in that hearing NEI said, "We'd really like to see a loan guarantee for new nuclear plants in the energy bill." Now, if your organization was truly going to be competitive, why do you need that kind of federal subsidy?

Mike Coyle: Well, we're not asking for anything more than is being given to other renewable energies that are being studied. We are developing an advanced design of the current fleet of reactors and as a result, we have some upfront engineering costs that we're going to need to go through for the first three or four plants that are built. All we're asking for basically is the same type of break every other renewable energies are getting and we anticipate that will also be in the energy bill.

Ben Geman: You know, the loan guarantee provision didn't make it into the energy bill conference report last time around and Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton recently released a discussion draft that also did not have the loan guarantee provision. What kind of strategy can you guys bring to bear to get that provision in the bill?

Mike Coyle: Well, we'll continue to work with the congressional committees to try to help them understand it and a lot of it has to do with the fact that each of our utilities has a different, not each of them, but many of them have different structures, so what would benefit, economically would benefit one utility, might not benefit another one. So what, I believe, that testimony advocates is that we advance a, essentially a portfolio of incentives that the utilities, depending upon their economic structure, could take advantage of. The loan guarantees is one of them.

Ben Geman: OK.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, what is your position on the loan guarantees? I mean, he's saying that these are nothing different than what's going to any other renewable energy and there are renewable energy programs that are out there, that are funded by the federal government.

Wenonah Hauter: This is a mature technology that's been around for more than 50 years. If it's actually competitive and going to compete in the future, it shouldn't need to have these special deals. I'd like to go back to the issue of subsidies. In the president's budget nuclear power gets almost $1.4 billion of subsidies, $650 million of that is for Yucca Mountain. So Yucca Mountain is getting federal subsidies even though the bulk of it does come from the tax fund. Also, the Price-Anderson Act, it's very ironic that the nuclear industry says that the new reactors, the new designs, are inherently safe and yet they still demand this programs that was supposed to only last for 10 years when it was first passed in 1957.

Ben Geman: You're talking about the indemnification act right?

Wenonah Hauter: Yes, basically the nuclear industry only has to buy insurance for up to $10 billion. If an accident occurred, Sandia National Labs, hardly an antinuclear laboratory, did a study that said if there were a serious accident it would cost $314 billion. In 2004 dollars, that's about $600 billion. We're talking about a lot of money and the potential for serious accidents, especially in light of today's threat of terrorism.

Ben Geman: You raised this question of what level of federal participation is appropriate. Spence Abraham, the former Energy secretary, gave a speech on Thursday before the U.S. Energy Association in which he called for sort of doubling of nuclear capacity by 2030. On the other hand, the federal Energy Information Administration, in their most recent outlook, out to 2025 forecast no new power plants getting built by that point. Mike, can you weigh in on that? I mean, EIA says it's just not economical, is that true?

Mike Coyle: We don't agree with the EIA and we've actually filed a report basically to them, saying that their assumptions that they were using were incorrect on their economic model, that conclusion was based on an economic model that showed a particular construction cost per kilowatt. We have pointed out to them that that's a flawed estimate and that when you get it down to where we fully expect that the construction costs or going to be, we are more than competitive with the other forms of energy.

Ben Geman: Now, I want to stay on that for a second. Would that competitiveness exist even without a loan guarantee for the first few nuclear power plants? Because that University of Chicago study, which was fairly high profile last year, said, yes, the levelized electricity costs could be competitive if you have a lot of federal help building those first few plants. Is it competitive without that federal help?

Mike Coyle: Well, again, going back to all we are asking for is what other renewable energy sources are getting, including, Wenonah says that this is old technology, it is not old technology. Coal's been around a lot longer than nuclear and the government is spending a lot of money on coal research to come up with clean coal. So all we're asking for is, basically, a level playing field where we get to take advantage of the same opportunities as the other sources of energy are getting.

Mary O'Driscoll: Do you think you need a level playing field or who's on the losing side of this level playing field, Wenonah?

Wenonah Hauter: I think it's the American public who's on the losing side. I mean, I think we should talk about all of the special benefits that the nuclear industry is asking for and are likely to appear in federal legislation. There's the tax production credit or the production tax credit, which would give 1.8 cents per kilowatt hour to nuclear power. It's estimated that would cost about $5.7 billion. There's the investment tax or tax credit, which would allow the nuclear industry to take off the top of their taxes 10 percent of new construction costs. This has been estimated to cost $14-16 billion dollars. There are also all sorts of other special benefits, the special contracts that the nuclear industry would like the federal government to assume so that they would actually have to purchase power from nuclear power plants. It would cost 50 percent more. If this was actually a competitive industry with a future we wouldn't need to see all of the special benefits. As far as renewables and energy efficiency, that's really where the future is. We should be spending our tax top dollars into these nonpolluting, non-depleting resources and transitioning into a future where we don't have radiation spewing from nuclear plants and have to deal with the radioactive waste problem for generations to come.

Mary O'Driscoll: Well, I wanted to know, few people will admit that, I wanted to talk to you about this, the energy efficiency and renewables argument, because that's been around for a longtime. Few people would believe that renewables and energy efficiency alone can help, can slow the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, they talk about how nuclear power doesn't, is an emissions free source of electricity. Environmental groups don't like coal, advanced coal is a ways off and natural gas in short supply, so what, exactly, do you want to have happen? Renewables and efficiency can't quite do it on their own.

Wenonah Hauter: Well, first of all, I think we should stop having the energy industry writing energy legislation. We should develop a real plan for the future that helps these technologies mature. Obviously, we're going to use things like natural gas as a bridge to the future, but relying on nuclear power just isn't realistic for dealing with climate change, for instance. It would take 1,000 to 1,500 new plants worldwide to reduce carbon emissions. That means we would have to find a new dump for nuclear waste every three to four years. That's simply not going to happen. What the industry wants to do is to build a few more plants and their using climate change as an excuse. We're not doing what we could do to really promote energy efficiency. Things like light bulbs, using incandescent light bulbs uses so much more energy, 75 watts as compared to 18 watts for compact fluorescent. Why aren't we promoting these energy efficiency technologies?

Mary O'Driscoll: What is your response to that?

Mike Coyle: Well, we've never said that we expect nuclear to be the only source of energy in the country. We very much support the development of other alternate sources of energy that are nonpolluting, but the reality is that the status quo, as it exists today, cannot, we can't sustain it. The Department of Energy is forecasting a 40 to 50 percent growth in energy demand in this country. Even with the conservation methods that are being advocated by Wenonah and some of the others, we're still going to see a huge growth in electrical demand. Nuclear is the only readily expandable nonpolluting form of energy that can be developed in time to fill that need. Today the renewable energies, which again, we don't have any problem at all with renewable energy, are a very, very small part of the portfolio and frankly, there's a lot of environmental opposition to those. There have been a number of states who have come out against wind farms, for example, because of the damage that they do to the avian population. There's been a lot of opposition to solar panels because in order to generate the amount of energy to even be comparable to a coal plant or nuclear plant would require a tremendous amount of land area for solar panels, besides that, the sun doesn't shine all the time. So, it all has to be part of a mixture that goes together. Today, if we shut down all of our nuclear plants, just took them off-line, we would have to stop driving 134 million cars in this nation in order to offset the savings that we would have in the carbon generation.

Mary O'Driscoll: OK.

Ben Geman: Wenonah, can we actually get you to respond a little bit more on that? You mentioned that we have the industry writing energy legislation, but very recently the head of the OECD also called for a very broad expansion of nuclear power. Given that it's coming from quarters that aren't just from the industry, at some point, how do you reconcile the need to address climate change and the fact that renewables and efficiency simply won't get you there? Is there a way to do that?

Wenonah Hauter: First of all, I think we have to address the idea that nuclear technologies are nonpolluting, which is just simply not the truth. Even the NRC admits that every 20 years there are 12 deaths simply from the liquid and gas emissions that come from running the plant, not the waste and all of the other ways that people are exposed to radiation. This nuclear waste is extremely deadly for hundreds of thousands of years. It's completely irresponsible to not have a solution and to continue completing it. There is no doubt that we need to put research dollars to expand renewable technologies like hydrogen, not producing hydrogen from nuclear power, but the real promise of producing hydrogen from water. Which if we were really putting the research dollars that go in to not only nuclear power, but all the fossil fuels, we could develop these technologies. We also do seriously need to look at energy efficiency and I would recommend that people look at Energy Innovations, which is a report that was put together by the Union of Concerned Scientists and a number of organizations that really looks at this idea that we have to continue to use more energy to be economically viable. It's simply not true.

Mary O'Driscoll: Thirty seconds, your response.

Mike Coyle: Well, I want time to go back to something that was said earlier about nuclear plants being dangerous. I love my family. I've operated as the senior manager at two different nuclear reactors and my family has resided in the neighborhood. I would not risk my family if I thought there was a real danger. I just don't believe that there is. I think that we do need to continue down the road that we are going on. We're going to need some assistance. Wenonah criticized the types of assistance. Those are not all additive, those are a menu of options that are out there that the industry could take advantage of. Again, the 1.8 cents production tax credit is exactly what's being made available to the renewable technology.

Mary O'Driscoll: That's going to have to be the last word for now. I'd like to thank our guests Mike Coyle of the Nuclear Energy Institute and Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen and my colleague Ben Geman of E&E Daily. I'm Mary Driscoll. We'll see you next time on another edition of OnPoint.

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