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Miller Center Debate Focuses on Energy Policy

May 20, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Christine Todd Whitman, James Woolsey, John Podesta and Karen Harbert recently debated energy policy and focused on the pros and cons of nuclear energy at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, a debate over energy policy. That was the topic of a recent debate by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

The participants were Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush; James Woolsey, director of the CIA in the Clinton administration; John Podesta, head of President Obama’s transition team and chief of staff for President Clinton; and Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy.

They were asked to discuss the pros and cons of nuclear energy.

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN (R), former governor of New Jersey: We’re going to have to look at some things that we haven’t wanted to talk about. Nuclear is 20 percent of our energy today. That is a subject that has been taboo for so long, we haven’t been willing to think about it, but we’re going to have to. We’re going to have to look at all these sources, because, unfortunately, much as we’d like to have it, there is no one silver bullet.

JAMES WOOLSEY, former director of Central Intelligence: Let me say a word about nuclear power. Nuclear power is, in fact, clean to operate and relatively today inexpensive to operate, but it is very expensive to build.

The reason we haven’t built any new nuclear power plants since 1979 is because of the public’s concern about Three Mile Island and in the aftermath. The market will not build nuclear power plants.

The real problem is, if you have a nuclear power plant, under the existing treaties, you can get into the fuel cycle. Whatever country in the world you are you in, you can enrich uranium, reprocess plutonium, and get very, very close to having a nuclear weapon.

North Korea has shown that. Iran has shown that. We do not want the United States with a pro-nuclear policy, particularly one that it extends to exports, to become the Johnny Appleseed of nuclear proliferation by traveling around the world, putting in light-water reactors, nuclear power plants, selling them, and having people get into the business of nuclear weapons.

Major international challenges

CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN: I have to get back to the security issue on nuclear, because I hear it quite a bit. It's a concern that people have and an understandable concern.

But I would just point to some of our major international challenges today on security: Pakistan with a nuclear weapon; North Korea moving toward a nuclear weapon; other states. Our not having built a new nuclear plant since 1978 hasn't stopped that.

And when you look at the way spent rods are contained and held in this country, they're in a very secure place. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission makes sure of that.

Are they perfect? No, nothing's ever perfect on anything. But when the 9/11 Commission did its look of threat matrix -- and you know this better than I, but certainly you can relate to this -- chemical plants rated above nuclear plants as likely targets for terrorists, because they were less secure and more able to create the kind of explosion that they wanted to see.

JOHN PODESTA, former chief of staff for President Clinton: I think what the fundamental issue is around nuclear, which is it is very expensive to build, once you've built it, it runs very cheaply. So the 20 percent of nuclear that's in our fleet right now that we get from pre-existing plants runs. It's profitable. It's easy, you know, and we need to maintain that and maintain the safety of those plants moving forward.

But the reason no one's built a new nuclear plant and, even with the generous subsidies that were given in the 2005 energy bill that President Bush supported, no one still has really got a plan on the drawing board -- although there are some new permits being requested -- is that it's really expensive to build it.

KAREN HARBERT, U.S. Chamber of Commerce: There are a number of companies -- 20, to be exact -- that have put forward applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build new nuclear plants.

There is an appetite. The loan application process at the Department of Energy to reduce the costs of capital has been oversubscribed. And the Congress is contemplating adding more, and I think they should, because we have a demonstrated expertise and we would recreate a manufacturing base in this country that we let go to Korea and to Japan that would create great jobs here at home.

So I want to be clear that there is industry appetite and that there is capital out there, and we need to match those two things up and move ahead.

JIM LEHRER: You can watch that entire Miller Center debate on many public television stations this month. Please check your local listing for the time.