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Reactor Plan Renews Debate on Nuclear Energy

February 17, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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President Obama this week announced $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees to help build two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, but environmental groups pushed back against the form of alternative energy they called "inherently dangerous." Gwen Ifill talks to both nuclear and environmental advocates.
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GWEN IFILL: But first: The future of nuclear energy gets a boost from the Obama administration, and a decades-old debate begins anew.

NARRATOR: The closer they get, the more threatening it becomes.

GWEN IFILL: 1979, the movie “The China Syndrome” depicts a meltdown at a nuclear power plant.

Within days, a real-life emergency erupts at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

NEWS ANCHOR: Twelve hundred people in all have left their homes.

GWEN IFILL: And, with that, nuclear power expansion screeches to a halt. But that may soon change. On Tuesday, President Obama announced $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees to help build two new reactors in Georgia. And, he said, that’s just the beginning.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Whether it’s nuclear energy or solar or wind energy, if we fail to invest in the technologies of tomorrow, then we’re going to be importing those technologies instead of exporting them. We will fall behind.

GWEN IFILL: Southern Company would build the two new reactors and benefit from the new government subsidy.

OSCAR HARPER, Southern Company: If we’re going to be serious about limiting emissions of greenhouse gases and carbon, nuclear’s going to have to be a part of that.

GWEN IFILL: But environmental groups like Greenpeace maintain, nuclear production is not worth the risk.

JIM RICCIO, nuclear policy analyst, Greenpeace: Splitting atoms is an inherently dangerous activity and should be treated that way.

GWEN IFILL: Beginning with his State of the Union address, the president has made clear he plans to break with environmentalists on the issue of nuclear power production.

BARACK OBAMA: We need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.

GWEN IFILL: On this point, at least, Mr. Obama has earned some tentative support from Republicans, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., minority leader: There are some areas of potential agreement: nuclear power, offshore drilling, clean coal technology.

GWEN IFILL: In order to win over those Republicans, the White House has acknowledged they may unnerve some Democrats.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: I think the president, a week ago in here, said that he was going to make some decisions on energy — and I think he reiterated it today — that might not make everybody in his party completely comfortable.

GWEN IFILL: The Obama budget for the coming fiscal year triples loan guarantees for nuclear plant construction. It would rise from $18 billion under the Bush administration to nearly $55 billion.

So, now we have our own debate on whether the new push for nuclear is the right way to go.

Scott Peterson is vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade association. And Erich Pica is president of Friends of the Earth, a national environmental advocacy group.

Welcome to you both.

Scott Peterson, is what we’re seeing here the beginning of a shift back to nuclear power production, and is it a good thing?

SCOTT PETERSON, vice president, Nuclear Energy Institute: Well, I think it’s not the beginning.

It’s — it’s a continuation of a shift, in terms of looking at nuclear energy differently, that’s been happening now for a couple of years, particularly in Congress, where you have tremendous bipartisan support now behind the idea that, if we’re going to meet the country’s electricity needs, if we’re going to look at producing electricity cleanly, and using as much low-carbon power sources as we can, and if we really want to stimulate the economy and add jobs right here in America, and really take the lead in exporting technology, as the president said, then we need nuclear power as a component of a large portfolio of clean options that include renewables, that include efficiency.

But we need to have the large-scale sources of nuclear — of — of energy like nuclear power. Already today, we have 104 reactors that produce 20 percent of this nation’s power. But, importantly, it produces 70 percent of all the carbon-free electricity.

So, we’re a major player today, but we need to start building the advanced reactor technology that we have. And the president’s designation of loan guarantees for nuclear, as he’s done for renewables already, sets us down that path.

GWEN IFILL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. Pica, what is wrong with that argument?

ERICH PICA, president, Friends of the Earth: Well, we look at the nuclear power industry over the last 50 year, it was started by the federal government through federal subsidies.

We started this industry without knowing what to do with the waste that it generates, the radioactive waste. It’s still a safety threat. I mean, the — the FBI has said this is a number-one terrorist target in the United States and around the world.

And we still have to transport. We don’t have a waste solution right now. So, we have subsidies which started this, and we haven’t solved any of the problems that this industry has been plagued with over the last 50 years.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s take that one thing at a time. And talking about the subsidies, what is wrong with the federal government — what is wrong with the federal government supporting an industry that will provide clean energy for people who need it?

ERICH PICA: Well, we tried this 50 years ago. Nuclear power was supposed to be too cheap to meter back in the day. Well, subsidies, tax credits, insurance, and now these loan guarantees, you know, Wall Street won’t invest in this technology. So, why is the federal government doing so?

We already bailed out the banks. We bailed out Wall Street. This is, in our mind, a preemptive bailout of this industry that can’t get private capital elsewhere.

GWEN IFILL: How about that, Mr. Peterson? Is this shifting the burden of risk from the government — I mean, from the industry to taxpayers?

SCOTT PETERSON: Absolutely not.

What this does is really backstop these companies going into the credit markets and accessing capital, with the backing of the federal government. They’re not direct loans. And, in fact, before the DOE will extend these loan guarantees, there’s an extensive review of the projects that goes on to look at the creditworthiness of the companies, to look at the project itself and the partners that may be involve in the project, really taking an independent assessment of the entire project.

GWEN IFILL: What happened…

SCOTT PETERSON: So, by — so, by the time they issue these loan guarantees, they have done a thorough and an exhaustive look at the possibility of this project going forward on schedule, on time, and on budget.

We believe these will, but we believe, like with other sources of electricity, nuclear energy will need some — some short-term help to get back into the marketplace. And that’s all we’re looking for.

GWEN IFILL: What if you’re not on time and on budget? What if — if you default?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, we don’t see, really, any company defaulting on these projects, number one, because they — the risk is shared among the partners in the project, not just Southern Company in Georgia’s case, but other utilities, the vendors, the suppliers. So, this risk is shared across a portfolio of companies.

So, we don’t believe and the DOE doesn’t believe that there’s going to be a default in this situation. We feel very comfortable that these projects will be completed.

GWEN IFILL: People argue, Mr. Pica, that nuclear energy is the way to get the more green footprint, the carbon-free production.

Isn’t it true that — that nuclear power actually is the only power production source that we — that we know of right now which doesn’t rely on fossil fuels?

ERICH PICA: No, we have got — the country produces about 20 percent, a little less than that, from other renewable energy sources, including hydro in the Northwest.

You know, we haven’t made investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and solar, the way we have been supporting the nuclear power industry. So, you have this comparison of, we have been subsidizing this industry for 50 years, and it’s taken these subsidies to build only 104 plants. And they don’t have a solution to the waste, and they don’t have solutions to the safety issues.

And, yet, we’re going to — you know, we need to make a choice, and it is, do we subsidize this old, failed technology, or do we subsidize the new future that I think President Obama campaigned on?

GWEN IFILL: So, you’re saying the money is being spent in the wrong place?

ERICH PICA: Yes. And particularly in this — this era of budget deficits and debt for the federal government and state level, there’s a zero-sum game for investment, both from Wall Street and the federal government. And…

SCOTT PETERSON: Gwen, if I could respond to that just a minute…

GWEN IFILL: I’m going to let you. Just one moment.

SCOTT PETERSON: OK. Thank you.

ERICH PICA: And to actually say that it’s a good investment from the federal government’s point of view into these — this industry that can’t get Wall Street capital on its own is just a waste of dollars.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Peterson.

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, if you look at what’s happened in the last 10 years, in terms of so-called subsidies, the renewables industry has gotten far more subsidy support from the federal government than certainly nuclear energy.

They got $60 billion alone from the stimulus package last year to jump-start renewable projects. And — and their rules are different than our — than our loan guarantees. They don’t have to pay any of the fees along the way, like we do. So, the federal government really is taking a broad and measured look at how to jump-start all clean energy technologies, because that’s what’s going to be needed.

GWEN IFILL: What about these questions about waste disposal and whether there is — that’s been worked out, and the safety question, which is what — what resulted in the pullback in the first place?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, let me tackle the safety question first.

Our industry is fully committed to safety. And when you look at the efficiency of all 104 nuclear power plants together, they operate 90 percent of the time 24/7. That’s by far the leading source of electricity that we have today in terms of efficiency. And we have done that for the last 10 years running.

And you simply can’t have that kind of record of efficiency unless you have a similar commitment to safety.

GWEN IFILL: And what about the waste disposal?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, on used fuel management, we — we manage that fuel safely at each one of our plant sites today. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission that regulates our sites says that that fuel is safe there for the next 100 years.

This is not a technical issue, in terms of managing it. It’s a political issue, in terms of the administration living up to its commitment to take used fuel from our plant sites, as the law required them to do back in 1983.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Pica, let’s talk about the administration’s commitments. Do you feel disappointed that this administration is deciding to back nuclear energy, instead of the point of view you would prefer them to follow?

ERICH PICA: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, this administration — you know, an energy portfolio that is oil and gas drilling off the coasts, new investments in nuclear power, clean coal technologies, it really sounds like the Republican campaign pledge of, let’s do all of the above right now.

You know, this president was elected to make decisions and tough choices. And, unfortunately, he’s just going back to, you know, let’s not make any decision whatsoever and just see what — see if anything can work.

GWEN IFILL: He’s making a decision, just not the one you agree with.

ERICH PICA: No, I think he’s making a decision, and that is he’s not willing to fight for what he campaigned on. And that’s what’s disappointing.

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, actually…

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Peterson.

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, actually, he did campaign on support for nuclear energy throughout his presidential campaign. And — and we see this as really just living up to that promise of delivering all the clean energy sources that this country needs.

And it’s not just nuclear. It’s going to be renewables. And anybody who looks at the problem that we face in terms of 23 percent more electricity demand that we need by 2030, but doing it in a way that reduces our carbon footprint, you have got to have nuclear and you have got to have renewables as part of that solution.

GWEN IFILL: He also…

SCOTT PETERSON: You can’t do it any other way.

GWEN IFILL: He also promised, Mr. Peterson, yesterday, when he made this announcement, that this would create a lot more jobs. Is that going to happen quickly? We’re talking a couple of years before you even get your permits, right?

SCOTT PETERSON: Well, it’s already happening.

We have created 15,000 jobs in the nuclear energy industry in the last three years just by getting ready, with the engineering, to build these plants. I was down at the Vogtle site in Georgia three weeks ago. There are already 500 people working at that site, with 190 pieces of heavy machinery, grading and excavating that site, getting it ready for construction.

We’re already expanding our manufacturing sector in this country to do what the president would like us to do, and that’s be a net exporter of nuclear energy technology. So, we’re building manufacturing sites in Newport News, Virginia, in Chattanooga, in Lake Charles, Louisiana. All of those are adding jobs to build nuclear energy components.

So, the stimulus factor in this decision has already been at work in our industry as we prepare to build the new state-of-the-art reactors that we’re already exporting to China and other countries today. We need to build them right here in America.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Pica, is that, in the end, what won the argument?

ERICH PICA: I don’t think that’s — that won the argument in the end. I think the politics of the U.S. Senate and U.S. Congress won the argument.

I think he’s committed to getting a comprehensive climate and energy package through this Congress this year. And he saw that, potentially, nuclear power was a way to buy votes, to move Republicans.

I think that, you know, it’s a fool-hearted strategy, because I don’t think that, you know, the Republicans are going to commit to that. It’s not about jobs. This is about politics.

GWEN IFILL: On that note, we’re going to have to leave it.

Erich Pica and Scott Peterson, thank you both very much.

SCOTT PETERSON: Thank you, Gwen.

ERICH PICA: Thank you.