Interviews
Jim Howard
President, Chairman and CEO of Northern States Power Company. Minnesota's Prairie Island nuclear power plant was nearly shut down when activists and the DOE stalled on setting up a permanent waste repository.
howard

Q: What was your view of the future of nuclear energy in the late '60s?

A: Well, in those days, people believed that nuclear power would be very inexpensive, abundant and available, an absolute continuous source of energy, well into the century that we're approaching.

Q: How many reactors were people predicting would be around?

A: I don't recall the exact number, but it was considerably more than we have today. Of course, that program pretty much came to a halt with the Three Mile Island incident.

Q: So looking back now, how is it different today?

A: There are two primary differences, and they really stem from one issue. And that is the change in the regulation that occurred in our industry, following Three Mile Island, which made it so prohibitively expensive to build a nuclear plant that people just stopped building them. No one would consider building one today. So the primary difference has simply been in the cost of producing a nuclear plant, and therefore producing nuclear energy.

Q: What about the need for electricity. Has that changed, really?

A: One of the very primary economic competitive factors in the world, of course, is going to be the availability of low-cost energy. So that's what's really going to make the wheels turn, as time goes on. As you look around the world today and see what some of the so-called developing nations are doing, it's clear that much of the competitive economic battle that's going to take place around this world--I use that word "battle" advisedly--is going to depend upon just simply the availability of low-cost energy. Of course in the developed countries, it's going to have to be environmentally acceptable.

Q: So how did you get into political trouble at Prairie Island?

A: Well, it sort of goes back a long way. The idea for the spent nuclear fuel--the fuel that's still in existence after its useful life is over in the reactor--years ago, was that we would consume it again in another reactor.

Q: Reprocess it?

A: And reprocess it. That program was moving full scale ahead in this country and around the world. In the U.S., it was brought to an end during the Carter Administration, when President Carter really simply put an end to the reprocessing of nuclear fuel in this country. And then, in early 1982, the industry signed an agreement with the U.S. government, specifically the Department of Energy, whereby the DOE would take our spent nuclear fuel beginning in 1998. And it's interesting to just go back and note that the government insisted that they be the ones that take this fuel; that it could not continue to be owned and be part of the private industry. So we went on our way, then, from 1982 until sort of in the late '80s, when it became apparent that it was highly unlikely that the government was going to make good on that commitment. In the meantime, of course, the customers of nuclear power had paid in a huge amount of money.

Q: So let's back up to this. If you can't reprocess, what happens? Do you have more waste?

A: If you can't reprocess it, you have to do something with the waste. Whether you want to do it in an interim period, which might be for 50 to 100 years, or a permanent repository like we've talked about since 1982, for 10,000 years. We have to do something with the fuel when it's no longer useful in today's reactors.

Q: How long [does] it take before you end up with spent fuel rods and where do you put them?

A: First of all, nuclear fuel is small ceramic pellets. Little hard pellets is basically what the nuclear fuel is. After it's been used in a nuclear reactor for say, up to 18 months or perhaps two years, then it has lost enough of its properties that it can't continue to be used. Now, you have to do something with that fuel.

Q: Because it's radioactive?

A: That's right. The fuel is highly radioactive. So we store it temporarily in what we call fuel pools (looks like a big swimming pool) inside the nuclear plant. Actually, I might say that of all the issues that revolve around nuclear power, the spent fuel is probably the most benign piece of it. And yet it's the issue that has been the most difficult to deal with. The best solution would be to reprocess this fuel and consume it inside a reactor. And the technology to do that exists today, not only in the world, but existed in the United States up until a year or so ago, out at the Argonne Labs in Idaho, where we had the technology to do this. And that was another blow to our industry, when in the Clinton Administration they closed that process down. So it's unlikely that we're going to reprocess fuel in this country, any time in anybody's time horizon.

Q: So if you lose that option to reprocess, what are you left with?

A: You have to restore it. I mean, you have to store the fuel somewhere. And you can take what would be a temporary viewpoint of it (let's say that's 100 years). And remember, in that 100 years, there may come a need for that fuel. Most of the energy in those fuel rods is still there, even after they're no longer useful in our reactors.

Q: But if we go back a few years, these spent fuel rods are sitting in this swimming pool in your reactor. Is that right?

A: Yes.

Q: What's the problem? Why not leave them there?

A: The pool fills up. It's just a matter of how much fuel you can put in that pool. The idea was never there that this fuel would stay in those pools permanently. So they were built for a certain size. Remember, in the early days, we thought we were going to reprocess the fuel, and then later, the government guaranteed that they would take that fuel by the year 1998.

Q: So the government promised in '82 to take it. What happened after that?

A: From 1982 until very recently, they did almost nothing that mattered. And we paid. The industry paid, as of today as we sit here, somewhere approaching $12 billion to the United States government to do this project.

Q: Specifically for the storage of nuclear waste?

A: Specifically for the long-range storage of nuclear fuel.

Q: What have you got for that $12 billion?

A: We've gotten to date, we've gotten nothing that matters.

Q: When did the situation in Minneapolis become a problem for you, a serious problem?

A: Well, it became a problem for us, as we knew it would, when we were going to run out of space in our spent fuel pool that we've talked about. If the plant was going to continue to run, there had to be a place to put the spent fuel on a temporary basis, until the government finally some day did make good on its promise to take it on a permanent basis.

Q: Otherwise, you'd have to shut down?

A: Otherwise, we would have had to have shut down part of the plant in 1995, and the rest of the plant probably two years later.

Q: So what was your scheme, then?

A: Our plan was to store the fuel in what is called a dry storage container. These are large containers where you'd put the fuel and move it out onto a concrete pad, and just let it sit there in a very benign way. This has been done in a lot of places around the world, places in this country, where fuel has been stored this way. And even our critics have a difficult time of making a case that there's any danger in storing spent fuel like this, up to 50 to 100 years.

Q: Now, did you have to get permission from the state for the containers?

A: We had to go to our regulators here in Minnesota. And we did that, and we received permission from our regulators to store enough fuel in these dry containers to get through the current useful life of our plants, which would be about 2012-2014, out in that period. A group of anti-nuclear went to court and said that we couldn't do this, that the Public Utility Commission, our regulators, did not have the authority to grant our ability to store it, and it had to be done by the legislature. The courts here in Minnesota upheld that, so the whole issue was thrown into the political arena, in our state legislature. And that's when things started to heat up a bit.

Q: What kinds of things were said about the dangers of putting things in dry storage?

A: There were all sorts of allegations made. Fundamentally, it came down to the fact that storing this was dangerous to the people around it, somehow dangerous to the greater community overall, and that the nuclear plants should be shut down. And for some of the anti-nuclear activists, their game plan was to get the Prairie Island plant shut down.

Q: So are you saying they knew this was the Achilles' heel of the industry?

A: They found the Achilles' heel. The Achilles' heel was basically the fact that the government, our government, our Department of Energy, would not stand up and say, "Yes, we are going to take this fuel. We will take it from the industry. We might not be able to take it in 1998, but we guarantee you we will take this fuel. You've paid us, and we have an obligation." Our government wouldn't say that. Fundamentally, what our government said was that although we may have a moral obligation sometime to take this fuel (whatever that means), we have no legal obligation to take it. And once that was said, then that gave the opponents what they needed to go to the legislature and say, "Well, see, this isn't permanent. This isn't temporary storage. It's permanent storage, (i.e. by definition, because there is no place to store this permanently)." So that's really what the whole issue was about. What happened was a relatively small number of people, both in the community and in the legislature, were able to make this just a major issue.

Q: What were some of the more far-fetched allegations made about storage?

A: There was every sort of allegation made: that people would get AIDS from this; you would get cancer from this; you would become impotent from it. There were all sorts of wild allegations made.

Q: Were you accused of racism?

A: We were accused of environmental racism because the plant is adjacent to a Native American tribal grounds. Certainly, our other plant is not. But anyway, we were accused of a lot of very unpleasant, heinous things. And it became a very major political community issue here.

Q: Now, basically, the environmentalists are right. If the government doesn't step up to the plate and do something, you're very vulnerable on this, aren't you?

A: No question about it. We have to agree that we are going to store this fuel somehow, in a reasonable fashion, on a temporary basis- between 50 and 100 years, and continue to look for a permanent solution for it. Again, there's a huge amount of energy that remains in these spent fuel rods. And there is at least one nuclear country, Kazakhstan, that's had a nuclear program for many years. They consider their spent fuel a national resource, because they understand that some day they're going to be able to use it, and they'll probably need it.

Q: How close did you come to shutting down?

A: Well, I had one person at the newspaper (I don't know if they were speaking officially or not) that told me that it was the single most contentious issue they've ever dealt with in the state of Minnesota. And this all occurred, of course, a couple of years ago. At the Prairie Island plant, one reactor, would be shut down by now. And the other reactor would be getting close to it.

Q: Can you describe these objects of contention, these five casks?

A: They're large. I can't give you the actual dimensions. They are large casks. You will look like a small person, standing beside them. They weigh something like 125 tons. I may be off that by a few tons, give or take. These are massive concrete and steel containers that, as I said, have been tested, certified, and so forth, and have been used in other places, and are quite safe.

Q: What was the mechanism that the environmentalists argued by which this could leak out and cause damage to people?

A: Well, all of the things might somehow endanger those casks. That it's close to the Mississippi River ... earthquakes, floods, typhoons. Tests that have been made on them in may places over a long period of time would say that they could withstand almost any outside trauma.

Q: So the notion was that they would cause damage only if they were opened or destroyed?

A: Well, that was never, clearly, specifically articulated. The approach was that nuclear power is bad. This plant should be closed. And this is the way to close it. Don't allow them to use these casks even on a temporary basis.

Q: Now, they came quite close to succeeding, didn't they?

A: Oh, they did, although I have to believe, from a personal standpoint, that this community, this state would not have allowed the Prairie Island plant to have closed ... The fact is, there is nothing to replace that plant. If you took it out of there, there is nothing to replace it. It's part of the system. It balances the system. It's a huge part of our system. Just can't do without it.

Q Where do you feel as an industry you've failed to get over the message?

A: Well, the industry clearly never did a good job. We don't really do a good job today in telling the story of nuclear power. We were secretive about it in the beginning, saying to the public, you know, "Don't worry about it. Trust us. And we know what we're doing." And that was the wrong approach. We still suffer from that today.

Q: In this country, where we have so many sources of energy, do people take energy for granted?

A: Well, I think there's no question that we've all taken energy for granted. We've had an abundance of coal, which basically is what the country was built on. And we're blessed with a huge amount of natural gas. And we can also bring natural gas in from Canada, as well. So we've had a lot of very easy-to-use energy sources. The only time we ever worried about it really, was back during a couple of those oil crises, back in the 1970s. And that was finally just a price issue--how much you're willing to pay for it. The energy was here. It's always been here. It's going to be here.

Other countries, of course, aren't as fortunate as we are. And other countries are going to want to develop. And you only have to look at China. The Chinese are gearing up to where they'll be putting on about 2,000 megawatts a month. That's just a staggering amount of energy. They have to have that if they want to do anything at all with their economy over there. Early on, that energy will be coal, which is a concern, I think, to all of us. And then, a little bit later on, it will be followed by nuclear power. They will be a huge nuclear energy-generating country in 20 years.

Q: So you see nuclear playing an important role, certainly in the Far East?

A: Well, certainly for some of the countries that we'll be in economic competition with. And the Chinese are one. The Japanese have a very, very fine, well-developed nuclear program. They'll continue to build nuclear plants, I believe, despite what few setbacks they may have had recently. The French, of course, have a great nuclear program. The British, the Germans have good nuclear plants, although I don't think they'll build any new ones over there in the near term. So nuclear power in the world is going to be a major factor. It's going to be around for a long time.

Q: But here in the United States, what are the chances today of building a new nuclear plant?

A: I think there's a zero chance of building it. You might say it's a little better than that. But we've given a lot of thought to it, talked to a people, tried to conjure up some scenario that could exist, where you could raise the capital and build a nuclear plant in the United States. I just can't see that happening today. First thing that has to happen, of course, is the spent fuel issue has to be resolved. That's the first reason. And the second reason, of course, would be the uncertainty of the regulatory process in this country where that is going to go. That's added a huge amount to the cost of nuclear power since the Three Mile Island incident. Some of it's good. Some of it's needed, and a lot of it is just overburden.

Q: You mentioned something in your speech the other day about the people who are running things now grew up in a certain time. Could you talk about that?

A: Well, you know, people aren't really good at assessing risk. And somehow we've decided that nuclear power is a very risk business. And there's no evidence to show that. The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had to go and testify before Congress, and was sort of taken to the woodshed. And she is brand new in her job, so anything that happened did not happen on her watch. But it's interesting to me that Congress doesn't take the head of the Department of Transportation or the head of the FAA or some other organization that's involved in people that are killed routinely. And yet the nuclear power industry always seems to be singled out. And perhaps somewhat facetiously. But if you think back to a certain generation that basically my children grew up in, they watched these Japanese horror films on Saturdays, where the giant mutant ant ate the community, and of course the mutant ant came from radiation exposure. And of course, the same children practiced ducking their heads under their desks in the event that there would be incoming nuclear missiles Russia in those days. So these people all grew up, and of course now they're in our government and a lot of other places. And there seems to be just an unexplainable fear of nuclear energy, for which there is absolutely no evidence to have that fear.

Q: Now, you're not denying, obviously, accidents have happened in the history of nuclear industry?

A: In every industry, accidents happen. And in this country, to the best of my knowledge, no one has been injured or killed in a nuclear accident involving radiation exposure.

Q: How do nuclear industry accidents compare to accidents in other industries?

A: If there was a minor, setback somewhere at a nuclear plant, it's a major issue. And of course, when an airliner goes down, that is a huge issue and a major tragedy. And we all feel it, even though we're not close to it. But the next day, we all get on a plane and fly somewhere. Some people in this country don't seem to have that same approach to nuclear power.

On the other hand, that's all on the negative side of it. When we take our surveys across our operating territory, the vast majority of the people that we survey are in favor of nuclear power. They see it as something that's needed for the future.

Q: Environmentalists argue that by using renewable sources and conservation, we can get through. What do you think of this as an idea for the United States and for the world?

A: There is nothing that will replace the fundamental base load power plants that we have today, at all, even if we weren't going to grow our economy or try to improve our standard of living for our kids and our grandkids. There's nothing to replace the basic coal, nuclear, hydro plants that we have. The fuel source that gets the cleanest ride from the environmentalists today is natural gas. And the question is: How much natural gas do we have? How long will it last? And is burning natural gas in base load power plants the best use of this very precious fuel? I would say it isn't. And I would think that any of the responsible environmental community, of which there are many, would agree with that. We have to find some way to produce energy in this country. And you have to have some kind of a balanced basket.

Q: But what about solar, windmill power, those kinds of things?

A: Solar energy, according to our scientists at the Electric Power Research Institute, has a good future. Long way down the road, but things can happen there. Fuel cells. Maybe fuel cells that are driven by natural gas, good future there. Wind power will have its place. It's going to be always a niche source of energy. It's not going to replace, base load or intermediate load plants. It just can't do it, regardless of how people might like to believe it would.

Q: So is this even more true about the developing world?

A: There are energy "haves" around the world, like the U.S., and there are energy "have nots". Every country has got to find some source of energy, or they're just going to sit in the Middle Ages. If they're going to do that, they're going to find energy somewhere--or import it. The Japanese, of course, were highly dependent on oil. We all know that's about the only thing we go to war for, really, is to protect the oil. And so the Japanese know they can't be dependent on oil. They've gone big time into the nuclear program. The Chinese have a lot of coal, and they'll start with coal. They'll move to nuclear power very quickly, because they have an educated, skilled group of people that can do that. The only energy policy that I've seen our government really support is the fact that we will go to war to protect our sources of oil.

Q: The industry is talking about now relicensing existing plants. Right? What would happen if the spent fuel storage problem wasn't solved?

A: Well, if it just wasn't solved, it would be the end of the nuclear industry in this country in a major way. They built some of the newer plants in the '80s with fuel pools large enough to carry them through to the end of their licensed life. For a lot of us who started earlier, our fuel pools aren't big enough to get us there. But I've got to say one thing. I don't know how it's going to happen, but somehow this country will solve this problem. We tend to muddle through things. And at the end of the day, we seem to do something that is close to being right, most of the time. And I think that we will. I cannot believe that the United States government would let the nuclear industry in this country go into a total decline.

Q: Now, do you think we should keep our options open? What about this idea that there's a "treasure" in all this garbage?

A: That's a really key issue. There is some new technology that is being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I'm not the expert on it. You can go back and check it out. But this fundamentally would take spent fuel from U.S. reactors. You would take that fuel and reconfigure it into a new fuel canister form. And that fuel could be burned internally, inside Canadian reactors. And to me, that is the most promising, elegant solution that I've seen come along. And the reason that no one's attacked that yet is because I don't think many people know about it. And I'm hopeful that something like that will come along, where we can get away from these pejorative terms like "garbage" and so forth, and say, "Yes, this maybe is a national treasure some day," like Kazakhstan says. Clearly, there's a lot of energy left in those fuel rods, and there's technology to use those. And you've got to remember that, in terms of greenhouse gases and so forth, there's virtually zero emissions there from nuclear power. It is the most really benign source of energy that we could find in the world today.

Q: Do you think we'll have a second nuclear era, if as Alvin Weinberg says, "This is the end of the first nuclear era?"

A: There will be a second nuclear era. The other issue I think that will drive that will be the competitive nature, not only in this country, for our industry, but around the world as well. And that's really going to give nuclear its day again, because the nuclear option will be a very competitive option for the U.S.

Q: One historical question. I've wondered if nuclear power took the rap for nuclear weapons along the way?

A: There's no question, I think, that people mix up in their minds the issue of nuclear energy with nuclear weapons, nuclear bombs, and so forth. But you also have to remember that when you go into the hospital with some very serious kinds of illnesses, you depend on nuclear medicine to either prolong your life or save your life. We've had a lot of things that have been really good about nuclear technology. And as, you know, the whole nuclear program in the world today, whether it's in China, Japan, or France, or Britain, or wherever you want to look, started in the U.S. It started here. We developed the technology. And it's been proliferated around the world, and other countries today are going to take a huge advantage.

One of fundamental concern would be that when the second nuclear era does come (and it will), the U.S. will not build those nuclear plants. They'll be built by the Chinese, the Japanese, or the French, or someone like that. We will have lost the infrastructure in this country to do that.

Q: Is that a fear, of losing the skill? I mean, this is not an area where as many people choose to study graduate level nuclear engineering.

A: The whole nuclear industry is fortunate. I believe that we have some of the brightest, most dedicated people in industry. There is no industry that runs with the precision that the nuclear industry does. And you can talk about hospitals. You can talk about airplanes and so forth. Fact of the matter is, we have simply not had any person in this country killed as a result of what you would call a nuclear radiation accident. Just haven't had it. And the reason that's never happened is simply because we do have such highly trained, highly motivated people. And fortunately, we still have people that want to go into that business. These plants are going to be around a long time. They're going to be around 20, 30 years from now. They'll still be here. They'll still be producing energy. The infrastructure to build these new plants. That's going to be gone by then. That will come from either the French or the Japanese or the Chinese or someone like that.


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