HEAT

Why Not Nuclear Power?

As calls for carbon-free power grow, nuclear power is getting a fresh look...

Jeffrey Ball   The Wall Street Journal

Jeffrey BallRead his full interview >

What about nuclear?

Nuclear is effectively a zero-emitting technology. The debate about nuclear is about the other costs of nuclear, that is, proliferation and waste disposal. And you will find people on both sides of the debate. Some proponents will take you to France. ...

But, again, and this returns to sort of a theme we've been talking about -- that didn't happen simply because someone decided that they like nuclear energy. It happened because the [French] government decided it was going to impose a strict policy, and it followed through with that policy much to the consternation of a lot of consumers and environmentalists over the decades. …

Eric Pooley   Former managing editor, Fortune magazine

Pooley

France gets about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear. For the United States to achieve that level of nuclear infrastructure would be an almost unthinkable task. It would require even more than the 45 or 50 new nuclear plants that John McCain is calling for.

McCain wants to double down on nuclear power. He thinks it safe. He thinks we can solve the problems, and he wants full-steam ahead.

Obama says we need to solve a few problems before we go down that road. We have to figure out what to do with the waste. McCain is in favor of moving ahead with the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Repository. Obama is opposed and says we need to come up with another solution for nuclear waste. Obama is also worried about nuclear safety -- both from the spent fuel and also safety from terrorism. And he says we need to solve these problems before we move ahead with nuclear. He's not opposed to nuclear power, but he's not willing to move ahead with it yet.

So this is a strong difference between the two of them. I think the nuclear industry -- which hasn't brought a new nuclear power plant online in this country since the late 1970s -- is not able to ramp up that quickly, quite frankly. We don't have enough nuclear engineers.

There's only one place on the planet that constructs the containment vessels, that's in Japan. We can't build 50 nuclear power plants in the next five or 10 years.

What if we had a pro-nuclear president in place, who really showed leadership and rationalized the process and put money into this?

If we have that, I think we can move rapidly to begin to build nuclear power plants. There's still some issues. There's still a waste issue that needs to be resolved. There's still a "Not in my backyard" issue that needs to be resolved. And there's a serious bottleneck in terms of the manpower and the engineering skill within the nuclear industry that needs to be resolved.

I think that anybody who looks at this climate change problem, and sees how serious it is -- almost everybody comes to the conclusion that nuclear has to be part of the mix.

Now, I don't know if that means that we build 50 plants. I'd like to see us build five and see them be cost-effective because nuclear is going to be a part of our mix if it can compete on cost.

Nuclear power may be a low-carbon option -- although you produce a lot of carbon in the creation of a new plant -- but it's not a low-cost option yet. And the marketplace is gonna be the arena that determines who wins here. If nuclear can compete with coal carbon capture and storage, if it can compete on cost, then it will be part of the solution.

What are the French doing differently?

The French did not scrap their nuclear program after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. And France is a much smaller country with much smaller energy demands. So it was relatively easy for them to achieve a large percentage of their electricity needs from nuclear than it is for us.

But we're a much bigger and richer country, so it's a percentage. I mean, people still have this question that persists. "If the French can do it, why can't we?"

Well, it's not that we can't, it's that we didn't.

We stopped building nuclear power plants 30 years ago, and now our current fleet of plants is getting old. So first we have to replace existing plants, and then we have to build new plants. So we need to go on a major building program just to stay where we are.

The French didn't stop building nuclear power plants, and we did. ... They built some plants during years that weren't as expensive.

We've had a huge spike in commodity prices. It's a lot more expensive to build a nuclear power plant in 2009, 2010, than it was in 1985 or 1990. So the French have us at an economic disadvantage. To continue with our current level of nuclear electricity production will be expensive. And to increase it up to the French 80 percent level is sort of unthinkably expensive.

So I don't think anybody is talking about getting 80 percent of our electricity from from nuclear power, except, perhaps, the nuclear industry itself. I think the reasonable debate is, let's try to build some new plants, and see how it works.

Does it also have to do with the different philosophy about the role in business and government, and how they work together in Europe versus America?

I think it does. The European model has been to choose economic champions within a company and to give them advantages. So the French government has Areva, a leading nuclear power company. They want Areva to succeed, and they do everything that they can. I think Westinghouse will tell you that the French do more for Areva than the U. S. does for Westinghouse. Though Areva may debate that point.

Sen. Joseph Liberman and Sen. John Warner   Co-sponsors, America's Climate Security Act of 2007

Joseph Liberman and John WarnerRead their full interview >

Why not have more nuclear plants? Why not fast-track nuclear?

Sen. Warner: For certain pragmatic reasons, we simply could not put a significant segment of our bill on the need to encourage greater use of nuclear power in this country.

Let's start with two fundamentals: Nuclear power produces a minimum, almost a nonexistent amount of pollution. Secondly, nuclear power has become safer and safer and safer. Our United States Navy today is operating on ships and submarines around the globe [powered by] nuclear power plants. ...

The United States has 20 percent nuclear power; France has 80 percent, and it's contributed to hopefully their own air quality significantly and other environmental issues. We had tragic problems here occasioned by safety violations or safety omissions. Those are behind us, I think, at this point in time, and ... we're beginning to see the first signs of America moving toward building new nuclear plants.

One of my power companies in my state ... just announced [a plan] to build a new nuclear plant in the state of Virginia. It's been well received, so far as I know, throughout our state. So the time has come for America to turn to nuclear power -- perhaps not to 80 percent like France, but certainly to increase from 20 percent to a larger percentile, because that will contribute to lowering CO2 considerably.

Sen. Lieberman: In fact, ... there is no way that America will meet the mandates that we have in this bill for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions without the building of a new generation of nuclear power plants. That's going to happen. ...

Sen. Warner: We know of four [or] five senators now that are working, and I'm going to be working with them, and I'm sure you [Sen. Lieberman] will, too, on a nuclear title to be put in our bill on the floor, and that means another four [or] five senators will join us on this bill. ...

posted october 21, 2008

heat home page · watch online · dvd/transcript · credits · site map
FRONTLINE series home · privacy policy · journalistic guidelines

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation