TOPICS > Science

Nuclear Power

May 22, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: America embraced nuclear power at the dawn of the post-war atomic age, but this source of energy, which President Bush now wants to expand, has had a troubled history.

In 1957, the first large-scale plant generating energy from splitting the atom went on line in Shipping Port, Pennsylvania. Though they were costly to build, more nuclear facilities followed in the 1960s and early ’70s.

But in 1979, disaster struck. A core meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, forced the evacuation of 140,000 people, and badly tarnished nuclear power’s image. The public backlash, and tougher safety regulations and licensing procedures imposed in the wake of Three Mile Island, hobbled the industry further.

In 1986, its image suffered another blow when an explosion at the Chernobyl plant in the then-Soviet Union, leaked radioactive material into the atmosphere over Europe. The result: The last new nuclear plant was ordered in the United States in 1978.

Still, there are 103 nuclear reactors operating today, the majority of them in the eastern half of the country. Combined, they provide about 20% of America’s electricity, second only to coal, and ahead of natural gas.

Today, the controversy about those plants centers on what to do with the used, highly radioactive, nuclear waste they generate. Some 400 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel is currently being stored at the individual plants. The federal government, which by law has responsibility for this waste, has been fighting to build a permanent underground storage facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada — despite opposition from environmental and safety critics. Now President Bush wants to expand nuclear energy’s role.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: France, our friend and ally, gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. By renewing and expanding existing nuclear facilities, we can generate tens of thousands of megawatts of electricity at a reasonable cost, without pumping a gram of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. (Applause)

MARGARET WARNER: The president’s plan calls on the federal government to: expedite approval of new nuclear reactors, relicense existing nuclear plants, let those existing facilities increase their output, provide a permanent deep geologic repository for nuclear waste, extend the law known as the Price Anderson Act limiting nuclear plant liability for accidents, and renew research and development into the reprocessing of used nuclear fuel, a technology that reduces the volume of waste, while generating a fuel source that can be reused.

Speaking to the Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington today, Vice President Cheney said failing to act on the recommendations would prove costly.

DICK CHENEY: If we fail to do an effective job of dealing with the re- licensing questions and the waste disposal questions with respect to nuclear energy, that eventually the contribution we can count on from the nuclear industry will, in fact, decline. We can’t keep those plants going without re-licensing and without dealing with these broader questions indefinitely into the future. And, of course, if we reduce the amount of power generated from nuclear energy, we will, in fact, have to make that up from other sources. So it’s vital that people remember that.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the Bush proposals, we’re joined by: Angelina Howard, executive Vice President of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade group of nuclear power producers; Oliver Kingsley, Vice-President of Exelon Corporation, the nation’s largest nuclear power operator. He runs Exelon’s nuclear division; Vijay Vaitheeswaran, the environment and energy correspondent for the Economist Magazine. He wrote this week’s cover story and editorial on the President’s nuclear proposals; and Daniel Hirsch, President of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, an organization that provides citizen groups with technical advice on nuclear energy issues. Welcome to you all.

Ms. Howard, beginning with you — given this troubled history which we have just laid out, why should America increase its reliance on nuclear power?

ANGELINA HOWARD: Because today nuclear energy represents 20% of our electricity. It does so economically safely and without emitting greenhouse gases and it needs to be part of future of the our energy mix.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you say safely, are they safer than used to be?

ANGELINA HOWARD: The operating history of the nuclear industry is very safe, and they have continued to show outstanding performance in both their safety as well as reliability of performance.

MARGARET WARNER: Daniel Hirsch, your view of the president’s proposals?

DANIEL HIRSCH: I was shocked. I found that one of the most extreme statements I have heard on nuclear energy — nuclear is among the most dangerous energies on Earth. The amount of radioactivity in a reactor core is so large that if there were an accident, it could cause hundreds of thousands of casualties. The wastes are so dangerous that they’ll be dangerous for half a million years and each reactor produces 10 tons of plutonium over its lifetime when it takes over a few pounds to make a nuclear weapon. In each of those areas the president’s proposals would make matters worse.

He wants to relicense aging reactors so that they would operate 60 years — way beyond their designed safety life. I don’t know anyone that would get on a airplane that was built in 1941 and even more so true for reactors.

He wants to reprocess and take plutonium out of the spent fuel and create a plutonium economy which could greatly increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, and they want to relax the standard for disposing of the high level waste because they know that the facility isn’t safe enough to get licensed so they want to lower the bar to have a chance to be able to license it and that means tens of thousands of generations of people coming down with cancer from the leaking radioactive waste.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Oliver Kingsley, you’re shaking your head. Respond on this safety question.

OLIVER KINGSLEY: These plants are absolutely safe; they are much safer than they were when we had Three Mile Island. We have extremely well trained people; we have much better procedures for diagnosing. The number of events in the plants is down.


OLIVER KINGSLEY: By thousands — where we would have some type of minor accident — those are down by the order of ten to three, so these plants are absolutely safe. We have got all of the waste matters totally contained there. And nuclear power is a good deal for the United States. We need definitely need to relicense the plants. What are with going to do? 20% of the power is coming; we have to go forward.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, Mr. Hirsch said that basically his view is the fact they are so old and getting older makes them unsafe as he said you wouldn’t get in an airplane made in 1941. What’s your answer to that?

DANIEL HIRSCH: Absolutely not. We maintain a living power plant; we do all types of checks on he reactor vessels, on the cabling; we change that out if we need to. So we maintain these plants in top like condition; we cut no corners at all with these plants. These plants are absolutely safe.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Hirsch, back to you for a quick reply on that.

DANIEL HIRSCH: Well, the public should understand what happens when you reradiate a nuclear reactor vessel over long periods of time, the reactor vessel itself becomes brittle, so that in the case of an accident and you have to use the emergency cooling system, the entire reactive vessel can shatter the way glass would in hot water. These reactors are not safe enough to even operate for their normal life; extending them 60 years seem to me quite crazy.

I would ask one question, though: If these things are so safe, why is the industry asking for protection that no other industry in the United States has — and that is immunization from liability. If the industry really believes these things are so safe, why is it removing almost all public scrutiny in the licensing process?

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Ms. Howard to answer that, and then I want to get to our other guests.

ANGELINA HOWARD: From the liability standpoint, the Price Anderson Act provides to the American public no fault insurance and it’s paid for by the utilities; they buy insurance from the public insurance pools and then the Act would allow for individual assessments per reactor if there was an accident. But it provides for no fault — there would be no litigation that would go through for years in the event of an event. It would actually pay the American people and the utilities pay for that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Vaitheeswaran, your view on this safety issue. And I know your editorial touches on different ones but let’s stay with safety for a minute.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: Sure. There is two components to safety, I think. We need to make very clear the distinction between running existing nuclear plants and building new ones.

In my view the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has learned a great deal about how to run nuclear power plants safely. It’s not like in the early days around the time of the Three Mile Island accident. A number of nuclear power plants came on that had generic technical problems and we saw a number of issues that were not actually related to regulatory problems but rather because this was an immature technology. I think it’s fair to say that the industry has earned a good track record and those operators that run nuclear plants well probably should be relicensed; it makes sense.

In fact, it would be foolish to shut them down in my view given a good safety track record. And we’re seeing trends in industry like consolidation amongst nuclear operators that means they learn best practice. They get economies of scale; they know how to run just like a proper business at last.

That’s quite different, however, from saying we should build new nuclear power plants; and that’s where I think the hurdle has to be much higher for this particular problem. That is the waste issue, which is also related to safety of course. The stuff is lethal for 100,000 years or more. We have not satisfactorily addressed the nuclear waste problem.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Kingsley, how does the Bush plan — describe for us in just layman’s terms how the Bush plan approaches this waste disposal issue.

OLIVER KINGSLEY: Well, it definitely encourages a favorable decision on the site in the Nevada-Yucca Mountain. It proposes technology to look at possibly reprocessing the fuel, which we would study. That was the original plan.

MARGARET WARNER: And that separates it into two different components.

OLIVER KINGSLEY: Yes, it separates it out, which was the original plan in the late 1970s. So we feel that we will be table to license Yucca Mountain. We will be able to store the fuel there, and that President Bush, once receives the recommendations from the Department of Energy, will proceed forward with a favorable recommendation and will be able to move the waste there where it should be.

MARGARET WARNER: And you think that America should feel confident that the waste that remains is contained?

OLIVER KINGSLEY: Yes. But right now today we have this waste very safely stored at our sites. We have the spent fuel pools. They’re seismically qualified; they’re very well protected. When we move it into casts, it is also very well protected. You can’t hardly blows these casts up any way and they’ll take any type of shock.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Hirsch – oh, I’m sorry –I didn’t mean to cut you off.

OLIVER KINGSLEY: So we treat this very, very seriously to handle this fuel the right way so there is no danger to the general public.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Hirsch, a brief reply on just the waste issue and the Bush plan in particular, how it addresses it.

DANIEL HIRSCH: Well, we have heard these promises from the industry over and over again; they said you could dump the radioactive waste in the ocean, that it wouldn’t get out of the barrels, but it turned out the barrels imploded before reaching the bottom. They said you could dispose of much of this waste by burying it in the ground and it wouldn’t migrate for 10,000 years and all six of the low level waste dumps in the country leaked within a few -

MARGARET WARNER: But let’s talk abut the Bush plan.

DANIEL HIRSCH: Under the Bush proposal, he’s sending a very clear signal that this facility – Yucca Mountain — can’t meet safety standards and he’s directing the government to relax those standards that would permit doses to maximally expose a person ten thousand times higher than the maximum does that is permitted for someone to be able to -


DANIEL HIRSCH: — nuclear power plant.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Howard, your shaking your head.

ANGELINA HOWARD: The Bush proposal suggests that we will study Yucca Mountain and as the scientific studies, which have been studied over there for over a decade, come in, that we base it on the scientific evidence. The National Academy of Sciences and others made the same recommendations and the decision will be based on sound science.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. Vaitheeswaran, I do want to turn to the other non-safety issues that you raised in your editorial and have been raised. Perhaps…

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: If I could jump in and add a further thought on the waste issue. If we could actually take the bigger picture here, it seems to me even if you take the optimistic case that something like Yucca Mountain, geological disposal, which is the industry’s favorite approach, were able to build within ten years, let’s say, which is again very optimistic — all the politics goes right and the site is built — to me the broader point is that is not final solution.

The brightest minds that we have worked on this in the last 50 years — the best idea that the nuclear industry come up with is to dig a big hole in the ground and stick the stuff in there and pray our grandchildren will come up with a way to solve the problem.

In my view, that’s hardly an elegant and certainly not a final solution. What’s required before any new plants are built is much more intensive R&D effort funded by the industry not government to help address this problem and on the contrary what we’re finding is the brightest minds in engineering are not going into nuclear engineering and the industry itself has admitted there is an aging work force in the scientific work force.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let me ask you to go on now to the other issues and respond to the two main argument the proponents make, which is we have to consider alternatives. That’s what this is about. Nuclear has two big advantages over fossil fuels one cleaner doesn’t pollute and two supply isn’t a problem – it’s not a supply question so that the price, whatever it is, is much more stable. Just your critique – your analysis of the non-safety issues in terms of viability at this of nuclear energy.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: They really point to the economics of nuclear power, the new economics of new nuclear plants as it’s been argued. I think that the first point to make is you need to consider the new dimension in electricity markets around the world is the advance of deregulation and liberalization of markets.

Now, set aside California. California is a particular example that thankfully nowhere else in the world has followed the California model of “deregulation.” It really is not deregulation. But if you enter a world ten years 15, 20 years down the road when nuclear plants come on line if that happens you’re talking about competing in an open marketplace with all sorts of electricity, with competing forms of generation.

If the private sector wants to build new nuclear plants without subsidies, without government help in such a marketplace, I say more power to them. But I think what you’ll find if you look a very close look at the sorts of structures that there are in most developed countries — whether it’s help with the Price Anderson Act, which is limiting liabilities, whether it’s help with government R&D in terms of new designs, if you look at other forms of help with export credit for example, selling nuclear power plants to developing countries, nuclear power gets unfair advantages that other sorts of power sources don’t. If you strip those out — you ask if the economics really make sense, I would suspect that they don’t.


OLIVER KINGSLEY: Nuclear power makes sense with the plants we have now our advance reactors make sense. We cannot depend totally on natural gas. We have made those mistakes in the late 60s and early 70s. We cannot save our way – conservation — we’re a nation of growth and we’re going to have to have more electrical energy. We could have California in other parts of country too.

MARGARET WARNER: Quick question — respond to the previous guest who said your industry really couldn’t survive without a lot of subsidiaries.

OLIVER KINGSLEY: We don’t get a lot of subsidiaries. We pay a large amount of tax; we get hardly any. We got a few pollution credits when we built some of the plants, but that’s it.

MARGARET WARNER: Brief response Mr. Vijay Vaitheeswaran.

VIJAY VAITHEESWARAN: Sure, the gentleman talked about it… I think it’s pretty plain and one of other guests talked about it too. If you look at Price Anderson – if you look at R&D over the last 20 years – if you look at how much government R&D money has gone in real terms, in today’s money, in the United States and in Europe and Japan to the various forms of energy, nuclear energy is probably more than half of that money. And today in this day and age for an industry as well capitalized and large as successful in a sense that it provides a fifth of America’s power, for such a mature enterprise to continue to receive any government money at all in terms of subsidies to me is astonishing.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We’ll have to leave it there, agree to disagree. Thank you all very much.