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Is Nuclear Power Making a Comeback?

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. President Bushís energy plan is reviving nuclear power, an industry long out of public favor. Once again, the atom is being hailed as a cheap and clean source of energy, but concerns over health and safety continue to dog nuclear. Is nuclear power now poised to make a comeback, or is the issue still too hot to handle?

To find out, Think Tank is joined by two experts, Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, and co-author of The Nuclear Power Deception; and Eileen Supko, a nuclear engineer and senior consultant with Energy Resources International, and author of many articles on nuclear power. The topic before the house is nuclear getting a radiant second chance, this week on Think Tank.

(Musical break.)

MR. WATTENBERG: After World War II, commercial use of nuclear power quickly became a major focus of U.S. energy policy. The first nuclear power plant, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, came on line in 1957 near Pittsburgh, others soon followed. The United States now has 103 commercial nuclear power plants in operation. Together, they supply 20 percent of the nationís electricity needs. The technology yields no greenhouse gas emissions. Sounds good, but itís been a bumpy ride. In 1979, a partial meltdown of the reactor at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, dashed confidence in nuclear power. The accident ended the construction of new plants, but now in part because of power shortages in California, change may be in the air.

A recent poll shows that 50 percent of Americans support the construction of new plants, up from 45 percent two years ago. Critics remain skeptical. The issue of what to do with radioactive waste has yet to be fully resolved. Some 40,000 tons of nuclear material await final disposal, while plans for a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, remain bogged down in a political ground war.

Lady, gentleman, thank you for joining us. Letís start with you, Eileen; are we going to see a revival of nuclear power?

MS. SUPKO: Well, I would say we already have a revival of nuclear power. If you look historically over the past 20 years, nuclear plant capacity factors have increased from 60 percent 20 years ago to close to 90 percent today. Over the past 10 years, weíve added the equivalent of 23 new nuclear plants just by increasing capacity factors, and operating equipment at nuclear plants.

MR. WATTENBERG: But hasnít the share of Americaís power generated by nuclear, about 20 percent, hasnít that remained about constant?

MS. SUPKO: Thatís remained the same, but our electricity production capacity has increased.

MR. WATTENBERG: So weíve been having a silent growth. Everybody says, itís bogged down, itís bogged down, but itís been growing.

MS. SUPKO: Itís been growing and I think that will continue to happen. There are a lot of plans at plants to continue upgrading equipment to the extent that they can, so that they can add capacity and increase megawatts without actually having to make substantial new investments.

MR. WATTENBERG: You buy that, Arjun, is that fact or is that opinion?

MR. MAKHIJANI: Well, thatís one piece of the truth. Itís true that the generation of nuclear has been going up, and the capacity factor and availability of plants have been going up, so that the amount of electricity the same number of plants are generating has been increasing, but itís also true that no new plants have been built because Wall Street said no more. After Three Mile Island, after the largest utility bond default in history in Washington State in the early í80s involving nuclear power plants, Wall Street said no, and Main Street said no.

MR. WATTENBERG: And Governor Cuomo closed the plant in, what, Shoreham?

MR. MAKHIJANI: Thatís right.

MR. WATTENBERG: A $6 billion plant, which was already built, fully built.

MR. MAKHIJANI: Fully built.

MR. WATTENBERG: Knocked it down

MR. MAKHIJANI: No, itís not been knocked down.

MS. SUPKO: Well, they dismantled it.

MR. WATTENBERG: They dismantled it.

MS. SUPKO: The majority of it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Thatís because New York State was so wealthy that $6 billion didnít mean anything to them, right?

MS. SUPKO: I think theyíre probably viewing that as a fault now given that Long Island is projected to have power shortages this summer because of transmission limitations, but the other thing thatís really important is, the nuclear industry over the past 10 years has positioned itself to correct some of the problems of the past.

First, weíve changed the regulatory process of getting new plants online. The current plants, the current fleet of reactors had a two-step licensing process. First, you had to get a construction permit, youíd build and spend your billions of dollars to build a plant, then you had to go through a lengthy process to get a license. Now, thereís a one-step process, you get a construction and operating permit all at one time.

MR. WATTENBERG: Can either of you answer for me an elementary question, was the Clinton-Gore administration in favor or against nuclear power?

MS. SUPKO: They were schizophrenic about nuclear power.

MR. WATTENBERG: They were schizophrenic, okay.

MR. MAKHIJANI: We havenít had an energy policy for the last 20 years. And the Clinton-Gore administration really didnít do much either to promote it or not promote it. The problem with nuclear is, the current design of nuclear power plant lightwater reactors are vulnerable to catastrophic accidents on the scale of Chernobyl. Is the probability as high as Chernobyl, no.

MR. WATTENBERG: In America?

MS. SUPKO: Absolutely not.

MR. MAKHIJANI: I agree. In the United States ??

MR. WATTENBERG: We could have a Chernobyl in America?

MS. SUPKO: Absolutely not.

MR. MAKHIJANI: An accident on the scale of Chernobyl is possible with existing reactor design by their very design.

MR. WATTENBERG: When you say on the scale of Chernobyl, does that mean ??

MR. MAKHIJANI: The equivalent release of radioactivity.

MR. WATTENBERG: And equivalent health hazard?

MR. MAKHIJANI: And equivalent health hazard.

MS. SUPKO: I disagree. The design of the lightwater reactors that are operating in the United States are completely different from the design of the Chernobyl reactor. The problem with that, there were two main problems. One, they didnít have the containment. And second, there was an inherent physics flaw in the way that the plant was built. It had whatís called a positive coefficient of reactivity, meaning you have to work to keep the reactor under control. Lightwater reactors in the United States have a negative coefficient of reactivity, meaning you have to work to keep it operating. Itís a very different physical system. And Dr. Makhijani is just wrong.

MR. MAKHIJANI: I agree with Eileen.

MR. WATTENBERG: But what youíre saying is, we have had almost 45 years of experience with nuclear power in America. Itís never happened what youíve described. You say, we ought to be worried because this might happen.

MR. MAKHIJANI: Three Mile Island is one spark away from an explosion blowing up the secondary containment. Three Mile Island was different than Chernobyl in that its radioactivity releases were really very, very, very much smaller. It wasnít a radioactive catastrophe like Chernobyl was, but it was one spark away

Why was that so because hydrogen was accumulating in the secondary containment, hydrogen accumulates in a loss of coolant accident because the steam reacts with the zirconium metal, the fuel rods, and generates hydrogen. Thatís part of the design.

MR. WATTENBERG: Thatís a harsh statement, one spark away.

MS. SUPKO: No. Absolutely not. The accident at Three Mile Island did result in a partial melt of core, the reactor containment system worked, it did its job. There were a combination of factors, including equipment failure and human error that resulted in the accident, but the most important thing is, no one was harmed from the accident at Three Mile Island.

We have 2,500 reactor operating years combined in the United States of experience. And I think that the experience of nuclear power in the United States and in Western countries around the world show that the lightwater reactors, the current designs that we have, are safe.

MR. WATTENBERG: Arjun, the French have, what, about 60 percent of their electric power?

MR. MAKHIJANI: Eighty.

MR. WATTENBERG: Four times what we have. Iíve been there, I was there 20 years ago. Itís everywhere, it works, they have a containment system. They vitrify, they make it into glass the waste, they sink it down into a mineshaft, nobody seems to be terribly worried about it.

MR. MAKHIJANI: That last part is wrong; they donít have a mineshaft to sink it down into. What they do in France, let me explain, they take the spent fuel rods from power plants, which contain about 1 percent plutonium, and 94-95 percent uranium, and 4 or 5 percent extremely radioactive fission products. They put it in a chemical plant called a reprocessing plant, and they extract the plutonium and uranium, and then they put the rest of the fission product, they kind of press huge glass logs, and they store it in a building, but you canít keep them in a building on the coastline of the English Channel forever.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is it accurate to say that the problem with waste disposal and waste storage is not that there is no solution, but there are too many solutions?

MS. SUPKO: I think that we have a technological solution to waste disposal, itís a political issue. Thatís the main problem, is politics.

MR. WATTENBERG: Which is burial?

MS. SUPKO: Yes, deep geologic disposal. Scientists internationally agree.

MR. WATTENBERG: But there are a variety of ways of doing it, even if thatís ?? I mean, do you ??

MR. MAKHIJANI: I really think itís an act of hubris on our part to say there are reliable ways of predicting for 100,000 years. Thatís the problem with Yucca Mountain. Let me give you an example, we have standards, environmental protection standards, for nuclear waste repositories in this country that were finalized in 1989. They apply to the plutonium waste repository in New Mexico, for example. In 1989, there was a scientist at Livermore who said, maybe Yucca Mountain cannot meet these standards. I was on the EPA Committee, government-industry-environmental-scientists on the committee; we had a consensus report that Yucca Mountain could not meet a portion of the existing repository environmental protection standards. What did the government do? Instead of looking for another place, according to existing published studies, it instructed the EPA to issue a restatement.

MR. WATTENBERG: But Eileen says itís all-political, and I must tell you, in the political world, thatís what we hear, that itís all political.

MS. SUPKO: Congress basically told the National Academy of Sciences to study the issue. The EPA was basically told to go back to the books and look at it again, and they came up with a standard about a year ago. The problem is, for Yucca Mountain ??

MR. WATTENBERG: For making it work.

MS. SUPKO: Specifically to Yucca Mountain.

MR. MAKHIJANI: They havenít come up with a standard.

MS. SUPKO: Well, they have a draft standard.

MR. MAKHIJANI: They published a draft standard, and they canít finalize it.

MS. SUPKO: Well, the problem with their draft standard is, theyíre now treating Yucca Mountain inconsistently with respect to groundwater than any other facility in the United States is treated.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask you a question, for many, many years, we have been sending spent fuel from various government projects Ė

MS. SUPKO: Research reactors, thatís correct.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- across the country by train regularly to South Carolina, there is a repository there. Nothing has happened. So I mean, itís being done.

MS. SUPKO: Thereís a storage facility at the Savannah River site.

MR. WATTENBERG: Right. Is that near Aiken?

MS. SUPKO: Thatís correct. Itís in Aiken, South Carolina, and what theyíre doing there is, theyíre storing fuel from foreign research reactors, from university research reactors, and from federal government projects.

MR. WATTENBERG: And has anyone died from it? Have there been any accidents there?

MS. SUPKO: Well, itís above ground storage.

MR. WATTENBERG: Iím confused about this. Weíve been running this for 45 years; you have 40,000 tons of nuclear waste in America stored above ground at the various nuclear sites around the country.

MS. SUPKO: Thatís correct.

MR. MAKHIJANI: Thatís correct.

MR. WATTENBERG: And not causing any harm.

MS. SUPKO: Thatís correct. Itís being stored safely. And it will continue to be stored safely.

MR. WATTENBERG: And yet the nuclear critics keep saying, after 45 years of this 'temporary' solution that hasnít hurt anybody, theyíre saying, oh, my God, we donít have a solution to this problem. Is it possible ?? I mean, suppose I say, well, what do you mean we donít have a solution to the problem, we have the waste, we store it, it doesnít hurt anybody?

MR. MAKHIJANI: I think here Eileen and I would agree that storing on site is not a permanent answer. Nuclear power plants are going to be closed, the revenue stream from the plants will dry up. This stuff contains plutonium, itís highly radioactive. Itís dangerous from a proliferation point of view. And these are all difficulties of nuclear power. You canít just say, weíre going to keep a couple of guards at the gate forever, and not worry about the waste.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask another question, is nuclear power economically sound?

MS. SUPKO: I believe that it is. If you look at the current fleet of nuclear reactors, they are right now the lowest cost producers of electricity in the United States, 1.83 cents per kilowatt-hour compared to 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour for natural gas. Coal is about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

MR. WATTENBERG: But youíre not counting the capital costs of building it.

MS. SUPKO: When I talk about the current generation, absolutely not. But, when youíre looking at new nuclear plants the costs of building that plant, the capital costs of building it are a very important factor.

MR. WATTENBERG: The existing cost counts the interest payments on what it cost to build, or thatís already been paid off?

MS. SUPKO: Thatís already been paid off, itís written down. When youíre looking at a competitive environment, those costs have been written down.

MR. WATTENBERG: I understand. But with a new nuclear plant, is it competitive to a new something else plant?

MS. SUPKO: The nuclear industry believes it is, when you look at the rise in natural gas prices and the volatility that weíve seen in fossil fuel prices in the last several years, nuclear can be competitive with combined cycle natural gas plants, which is what everybody is building right now.

MR. WATTENBERG: You agree with that?

MR. MAKHIJANI: Well, I really believe this is partial information, you canít say that costs have been written down and so they donít matter. The capital costs in nuclear are the most important component of nuclear power plant costs. And in a proper comparison ??

MR. WATTENBERG: For a new one?

MR. MAKHIJANI: No, in a proper comparison of natural gas versus nuclear, the proper way to compare them is to level the costs over life of the plant and say youíre going to generate so many kilowatt hours, the capital costs are so much, the fuel costs are so much. On that basis it depends on which power plant youíre talking about. If youíre talking about the power plants that were completed in the 1980s that cost $3000 and $4000 a kilowatt theyíre much more expensive even at the present high cost of natural gas.

MR. WATTENBERG: I want to bring up two issues. One is energy security, is it not true that if you look at this whole complex of different energy fuels that we have, the increasing demand, the multiplicity of sources from many volatile countries around the world, that from the American standpoint the best thing to have is substantial diversity?

MR. MAKHIJANI: I would agree that diversity of energy sources is very important.

MR. WATTENBERG: And that includes nuclear?

MR. MAKHIJANI: I wouldnít agree with that.

MR. WATTENBERG: You would close down every nuclear power plant in America?

MR. MAKHIJANI: Well, I donít think you can close down nuclear power plants overnight. That would be irresponsible to say that.

MR. WATTENBERG: But you would like it.

MR. MAKHIJANI: No, itís like saying, weíve got to stop driving cars, because weíre afraid of global warming. Well, you know, youíve got a system in place and youíve got to put a transition plan into place, how to address economic issues, environmental issues, and jobs issues, electricity reliability issues, and have a power system over a period of time ?? itís going to take 20 or 30 years.

MR. WATTENBERG: But isnít that true with every energy source? Coal kills people, gas kills people, hydro kills people in one way or another the miners, the floods. This is not a safe world, Arjun, you know that.

MR. MAKHIJANI: Well, Iím for the risks of living that come with life. I think the risks that can be avoided should be avoided. And one of the reasons Iím against nuclear is that itís got these materials that last for very long, that are proliferation prone, you donít know whatís going to happen with the plutonium. You canít tell people donít dig here, and donít make bombs 5,000 years or 500 years from now. Itís a kind of organized robbery of future generations. The United States is the Saudi Arabia of wind power, what does wind power cost today?

MS. SUPKO: I disagree.

MR. MAKHIJANI: You look at the numbers, Iím sorry, the wind power potential of Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and a few other heartland states ??

MS. SUPKO: But no one lives there.

MR. WATTENBERG: You are in favor ??

MR. MAKHIJANI: Thatís exactly the point, you can pay the farmers.

MR. WATTENBERG: You can rent their farms.

MS. SUPKO: Well, heís talking about building wind plants, wind and solar all have a role, all renewable energies have a role in our energy mix, but they donít make sense in the Eastern United States. If you were to build the equivalent amount of wind power to replace a 1,000 megawatt reactor it would require 150,000 acres.

MR. WATTENBERG: You are in favor of visual pollution. I have driven past some of these windmill farms, and the idea that environmentalists, and aesthetic environmentalists are in favor of these miles of flapping windmills blows my mind.

MR. MAKHIJANI: I am in favor of our generation paying the cost of what weíre doing. Itís pathetic after 200 years of industrial revolution that weíre doing things in the way that weíre doing them.

MR. WATTENBERG: Last question, we have been subjected in the last decade or so to a campaign that says there is going to be substantial global warming. I donít happen to buy some of it, but I am not an expert on it. But, letís stipulate that itís so. Itsí going to be global warming, and itís not going to be good for us. One would think that if you were petrified of global warming you would say, huzza, letís hire Eileen to tell us how to do it. Is this some, Jane Fonda blew the whistle and everybody skated the other way? Whatís going on here?

MS. SUPKO: The role that nuclear power might play in helping to mitigate global climate change and greenhouse gas releases, if indeed there is global climate change, like you I donít know enough about it, but the role of nuclear power is powerful. In the United States alone nuclear power plants annually prevent the emission of more than 150 million metric tons of carbon. And in addition, they prevent the emissions of sulfur dioxides and nitrous oxides, which contribute clean air, or to polluting our air and acid rain.

Show Topic: ABORTION AGING AGRICULTURE ART BOSINA BUSINESS CANADA C One of the things with respect to the Kyoto agreement and negotiations on that, a lot of the anti-nuclear groups in countries in Europe wanted nuclear out of the picture in something called the clean development mechanism, in looking forward to how it is that we might mitigate in building future energy. And the United States took a fairly firm stance that they wanted nuclear to be included in that mix, I give some credit to the Clinton administration there. But, it really is ?? this is an area where thereís a bit of schizophrenia with respect to nuclear power. People see that there are benefits, but yet they donít want to build new nuclear plants, because theyíre afraid of public perception issues, and nuclear waste issues.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you accept the idea that weíre, as a species, in some danger from global warming?

MR. MAKHIJANI: I donít know about as a species, on a biological level. But, I do think there are certain scientifically well-established facts. Carbon dioxide does increase infrared; we have increased the amount of energy circulating in the atmosphere as a result of it.

MR. WATTENBERG: So why wouldnít you, instead of as I see it looking for every argument against nuclear, when after all there are arguments against every fuel source, why wouldnít you be leaning the other way saying, look, this is a dangerous thing, nuclear is the one big time fuel that doesnít contribute to that. Why are you saying what youíre saying?

MR. MAKHIJANI: Look, I agree that nuclear can offset carbon dioxide emissions. There are two reasons why Iím saying what Iím saying. One, as Iíve already told you, I donít think weíre at such a primitive level of technology that weíll say, okay, weíll solve global warming but weíre going to aggravate proliferation and nuclear waste, and increase the risk of accidents from building lots of power plants, because they go linearly whatever they are with the number of power plants.

MR. WATTENBERG: Proliferation is going to happen around the world whether we do it or not. I mean, thereís plenty of people producing nuclear.

MR. MAKHIJANI: I think that proliferation is linked to the spread of plutonium as a material, the larger amounts that you have the more difficulty youíre going to have. Is there an answer, yes, we can have an energy system thatís clean, where we are paying the costs of what we do, and either through global warming or proliferation of waste arenít shoving it off onto our kids.

MS. SUPKO: One of the things that the United States government is doing right now, the Department of Energy is looking at what they call generation four reactors, which is kind of the next step from where we are now.

MR. WATTENBERG: Is this the pebble thing?

MS. SUPKO: Pebble bed reactor might be one example, theyíre considered to be inherently safe. The idea is that what you do is you make them proliferation resistant to the extent one can. Theyíre generally smaller reactors that can be built in places where maybe they donít have the same infrastructure, and human resources that we have here in the United States, and in Western countries. And what theyíre looking forward to is looking down the path over the next 20 or 30 years, is coming up with designs and building these generation four reactors, such that other countries ??

MR. WATTENBERG: But are we ready to go now with more nuclear?

MS. SUPKO: In the United States, absolutely. I think youíll hear some announcements, in fact, some companies have already announced that during the next year to 18 months they will be announcing their early site permitting process, where they say theyíre going to build new nuclear plants.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. We are out of time. I want to ask just an elemental question to Arjun and to Eileen. In the course of the next few years, I guess weíre talking a decade, decade and a half whatever it is, are we going to have a greater share of Americaís energy coming from nuclear power?

MR. MAKHIJANI: I donít think so. I think itís going to take ?? even if there is a resurgence itís going to take a long time, and the problems actually of oil and other problems are much shorter term. I donít think nuclear is going to make a significant contribution, even if there is investment. And I think thereís going to be a big fight over it.

MS. SUPKO: And I would say we are going to continue to generate more electricity with our current fleet of reactors, weíre going to upgrade capacity to the extent that we can, and upgrade equipment, and you are going to see companies giving serious interest to building new nuclear reactors in the United States. In the next few years, no, you canít build a nuclear plant in two to three years, it takes at least five years, but I think between five and ten years down the line weíre going to see new nuclear plants that make sense economically.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Thank you, Eileen Supko, and thank you Arjun Makhijani, particularly for bearing with your very neutral moderator on this topic. And thank you.

Please remember to send us your comments via email. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.


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