Former U.S. Nuclear Waste Negotiator
Q: Can you tell me how you came to be the nuclear waste negotiator?
A: I ran for the Senate unsuccessfully in '92. And in '93, President Clinton appointed me to be the nuclear waste negotiator. I went through the Senate process and was confirmed by the Senate in late '93. And so I really ran that office from about November '93 to January or February of '95. We closed the office in February of '95.
Q: What was your mission?
A: [My] mission was to find a state or states that would willingly accept a temporary waste facility, what we called an MRS, or monitored retrievable storage facility.
Q: Why was this an important issue?
A: Well, we have several utilities that have a number of nuclear reactors that generate electricity. And they're having a problem dealing with the waste. And as that waste stacks up around the utilities, they are required by law to either create more space, which means they've got to move it off site, or essentially close down. And so we're essentially dealing with commercial spent fuel. We're trying to find an MRS somewhere in the nation, a place that would take this on a short-term basis. And my job was to try and convince a state it would be in their interest, that there were a number of economic benefits if they would be willing to cooperate with my office and with the Department of Energy, to create a MRS in the boundaries of their state.
Q: So from a political point of view, is this a hard sell?
A: It was a very hard sell. It was very hard sell. We were dealing with a material that was benign, safe, and yet the perception was, anything nuclear just scared people to death. And to go to a state and say, "We want to bring nuclear waste into your state," was something that quite often the political leaders understood, but the public would just be terrified at. And as a result, we were not very successful.
Q: Now, you say it was safe. Did you figure this out for yourself?
A: Well, I'd served in the Congress, served on the Science Committee, on the Energy Subcommittee. I think I knew quite a bit about the nuclear industry. I was convinced, in my own mind, that the spent fuel, if treated properly, was safe, and that the risk to a state or to a community was minimal; that in the long term, energy interest of this nation, we had to deal with this issue. And so I felt honored to take a position, felt that I was speaking accurately to the people when I told them that we could put in their state a safe MRS, and that the economic benefits would enhance, would benefit the entire state with minimal risk.
Q: But what did you find? I mean, what is ordinary people's perception?
A: Well, ordinary people were terrified of the thought of anything nuclear within their state. They didn't recognize the amount of power they were getting every time they turned on the light switch, from some nuclear reactor somewhere. When they think nuclear, they think of bombs or Three Mile Island or Chernobyl or young people getting leukemia because of excess exposure to radiation. This nation has not done a very good job of educating the people on the truth and the reality about radioactive material. And as a result, if you want to scare someone, you tell them we're bringing nuclear waste into their state.
Q: What do they think nuclear waste looks like? Do they have any knowledge at all?
A: No, they don't. They don't. Their thought is that it's some kind of green oozy stuff that is spewing poison [if] you get near it, and you'll die within minutes or hours. There [are] terrible fears about what they don't understand. And most are not interested in getting the facts.
Q: Is also the idea that it's called waste a problem here?
A: Absolutely. And one of the things we tried to do when I was over the Nuclear Waste Office was to change the name from "nuclear waste" to "spent fuel", because I believe that there was some value in that spent fuel could be extracted. We're dealing with perceptions. And if you can change some of the ingredients of that perception, then I think that the results will be different. And by talking that we're not making your place a waste dump, but in fact we are putting together a research facility that will deal with spent fuel, I think that's much more sellable.
Q: So describe the kind of groups you went to, and the kind of ways you went about trying to convince them.
A: Well, first of all, I was not the first waste negotiator. My predecessor, Mr. Leroy, had sent out general invitations to states and Indian tribes. And so when I took the office, he was still involved with a half a dozen Native American groups: the [Muscaleros] in New Mexico, the Gosiutes of Utah, the Paiutes of Oregon ... So we continued those negotiations and had some success. I think, had the Indians really been sovereign, as they want to believe, we could have solved it in that framework. But given the reality that the political force in the state [were not going to] allow the Indians to do this, we continued to work with them because of the commitment, but we also looked to other states. I met with individuals that I'd known while serving in the Congress, the governors that I was introduced to. And we had some very interesting private discussions about this material and what it could mean to the states. And frankly, there was some interest.
Q: Were these discrete discussions?
A: Well, very much so. Yeah. I felt very uncomfortable about going into a state and putting a governor on a hot seat, just by the presence of the nuclear waste negotiator visiting with him. Some instances, we met in my office in Washington. When the governors were in town for state business, they would stop by, and we had some good conversations. A couple at the airports, Chicago and Salt Lake. Went to a couple of states and visited with their representatives. And yes, the conversations were discrete. We talked about the parameters. Frankly, the biggest problem I had was that the year that I was functioning as nuclear waste negotiator was an election year. And so everything governors, particularly those that were up for re-election, did was under close press scrutiny. And very unfair to hit a sitting governor or his challenger with the fact that they've been talking with the nuclear waste negotiator. So there was interest on both incumbents' and challengers' parts that these conversations be discrete. But frankly, there was some interest. And I think, had my office been allowed to continue, we may have come up with some settlements.
Q: Why do you think it wasn't allowed to continue?
A: Well, for political reasons. We, in fact, had enough money to continue for another year and was assured that that would be enough. But Congress omitted the authorizing language to keep my office open. It was under the law to close in January of '95. But Congress then appropriated another million dollars to keep us going for at least another year. We were assured by several leading politicians of both parties that the authorizing language would be included in some legislation, but that didn't happen. I think the reason was, both the Department of Energy and some of the leaders in Congress felt that Yucca Mountain was the solution, and anything that detracted from this nation's attention to Yucca Mountain would be detrimental to the waste policy. And we somehow were perceived as a threat, because if we came up with a temporary solution, an MRS siting, that would take some of the pressure of Yucca Mountain, and therefore the whole program would be in jeopardy. And so they didn't want that to happen. They had placed their entire emphasis, bet the whole wad on Yucca Mountain, and they didn't want anything to interfere with that. And so I think the word was passed out that I was getting a little too close, that a settlement would hurt Yucca Mountain, and so they closed us down.
Q: Take the decision not to reprocess. And second, the Waste Act, which basically defines it as a thing you're going to dump. How significant are both these things?
A: Well, both are very, very important. We entered the Nuclear Age with everyone being comfortable with the notion that we would recycle. This government spent millions of dollars building a plant in South Carolina to do the recycling. Interestingly, I don't think it was ever used. The utilities were assured they would not have to deal with the waste issue because the federal government would take control, would recycle it, would provide them with cheap nuclear power, or pellets for the nuclear reactors. When Carter decided that that was not good policy, that it could lead to nuclear proliferation, that somehow this bomb-making material would then become available to terrorists, we stopped the whole principle of recycling. And then Reagan essentially reinforced it by saying, "Well, we can recycle, but the government's not going to spend any money on it," essentially finished the notion of recycling. And so that placed the utilities with a new problem. And that is, what do they do with the waste? If the government's not going to take it, they've got to have some kind of solution.
Q: But also you're saying that that takes something which you could call a fuel and turns it into waste.
A: Exactly. When you make that decision you're not going to recycle, then no longer are you dealing with a potential resource, but you're dealing with a waste product, and a waste product that has a tremendous half-life. I mean, we're talking about a product that's not going to be just around for a few hundred years, but thousands of years. And utilities were not in a position to deal with that issue. And in fact, the cost of dealing with that issue had never been calculated into the cost of the energy that they were producing. And all of a sudden, this really changes the whole equation of this so-called cheap nuclear energy.
Congress tries to step in and help this with the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, in which they were going to "in a scientific fashion" solve this problem by establishing one repository in the east and one in the west. [Well], politics would now allow one to be built in the east. Well, they were going to build it in the west, but the Waste Policy Act calls for three particular sites that they would study: one in Washington, one in Texas, and one in Nevada. Politically speaking again, that wasn't going to happen. The majority leader in the House, Mr. Foley, came from Washington. There was no way Washington was going to take spent fuel.
Q: So this was a pretense of scientific ...
A: I think when Congress passed it, I mean, that just made them feel comfortable because we were going to do this in a scientific fashion. But politically speaking, it couldn't happen. And so Nevada being the weakest of the states, with a senator at that time who said, "Yeah, we'll take it," it was an easy solution. So we slam-dunked Nevada, and that became a solution that made everyone feel good. The state is weak politically. It [is] mostly controlled by the federal government. And they've been blowing up nuclear weapons there for the last 30 or 40 years. So it seemed to everyone a very logical solution. What they didn't expect was the reaction of the delegation and the reaction of the people.
Plus, I think it was bad policy. I think the notion of digging a hole in Nevada and putting all this material in, and saying it's going to be safe for 10,000 years, was an impossible solution. It was not one that you could convince people of. It was not one that made sense. And essentially, it says to this nation that we're as smart as we're going to get on nuclear materials. No one's going to get any smarter. And the fact that there might be other things ... to do with this material was completely lost. And so we just put it in a hole in the ground and thought somehow we could walk away from it and our problems would be solved. It hasn't worked, and I don't think it will work.
Q: So is the other problem that this decision forecloses off other options?
A: Absolutely. By putting all of your eggs in the nuclear waste hole-in-the-ground solution, you don't look at research on spent fuel, you don't look at temporary storage, you don't look at any other kind of solution, other than we're going to build a plutonium mine somewhere in the bowels of Nevada.
Q: Given that it was so hard to find anywhere, are there a lot of people who have a vested interest in pushing this policy through?
A: Well, I think so. I think it's the states that have nuclear reactors and the material's building up, because if we don't solve the problem, then those reactors are going to have to shut down. And even the most anti-nuke politicians realize that if you close down the plants in Minnesota, if you close down the plants down in Maryland, you're going to create a real energy crisis. And nothing makes people madder than when the air conditioning doesn't come on in the summer, or when they can't get up to the top floor of one of these New York skyscrapers by the elevators because there's not enough electricity. I mean, all you have to do is look back at the blackouts and the political ramifications of every time one of those happened. And so a lot of these folks are kind of on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they don't like nuclear power. But on the other hand, they don't have any solutions to the energy shortages that closing down nuclear reactors will create.
Q: You say you don't think the Yucca Mountain will be built. Why do you think this is? Fairness issue? Cost issue?
A: Oh, I think it's all of the above. I think the cost is going to be so prohibitive. By the time we do all of the engineering requirements the courts and the environmental groups are going to demand, we're going to be into this thing several billions of dollars. And I think again, DOE has placed impossible engineering standards. I mean, you can't find any engineer that's going to sign onto a document that this hole in the ground is going to be safe for 10,000 years, or safe for even 200 years. I mean, that's impossible to do. At least, that the courts are going to uphold.
I think secondly, the fairness issue. Why should Nevada be the dumping ground for the nation's nuclear waste?
And I think the real killer to this whole approach is going to be the transportation issue, that people are going to be very nervous when they think of these trucks hauling nuclear waste from the power plants in the East to Nevada, going through interstates that run through the middle of half of America's major cities. Those are going to be very tough issues for the Department of Energy to convince people of.
And then I think the fairness issue really comes back to the point that, why should New Yorkers get the benefit of electricity from nuclear reactors, and Nevada have to deal with the waste? Why should the people of Washington and Baltimore enjoy the benefits of a cheap electricity from these nuke reactors, and the people of the West, particularly Nevada, have to deal with 10,000 or 100,000 years of waste, so these people can have that benefit? I think that whole issue makes it very, very hard for the Department of Energy to tell people in Nevada that they're really getting a good deal.
Q: But that's got nothing to do with safety?
A: Nothing to do with safety. When it comes right down to it, I think fairness is going to be the issue that's the toughest for the Department of Energy to deal with. I think they can handle the safety issues because no one disagrees that spent fuel from these reactors is unsafe. I mean, we store it in and around the major cities of the East Coast. If it's unsafe, then why are not the anti-nuke groups just raising hell over the fact that you've got tons of spent fuel sitting around these East Coast cities? No one disagrees on the question of safety. The question is transportation and fairness, and should a small, sparsely populated state take a national responsibility so that people in the East can have the convenience of all the things that go with electricity?
Q: Talk about this as a political issue; its attractiveness to environmentalists and why they've zeroed in on the waste part of the nuclear equation.
A: Well, I think there's a number of people in this country that are just adamantly opposed to anything nuclear. I think they obviously are terrified of the implications of having electricity come from nuclear reactors. There's a fear that somehow one of these reactors could go sour and blow up and cause all kinds of damage. They just don't like nuclear reactors. And I think the notion is, the best way to defeat the nuke industry is on a one-by-one basis. In other words, to try to take on nuclear policy in this nation has not been very successful for them. But to take on one plant in Maryland, or a plant in South Carolina, or a plant in Minnesota, is a much more winnable fight, because then you're building on the fears of the local community. It's something you can really stir people up to. And when people are terrified, they're not concerned about facts. And the nuke issue is one that a demagogue can really have a great time with, because he doesn't have to worry about facts. He just plays on everyone's built-in fears. And frankly, over the years, the Department of Energy and the government has not done a very good job of separating nuclear bombs from nuclear power plants.
Q: The situation in Minneapolis. You say, objectively, it is a very benign issue, but this got people worked up, didn't it?
A: Oh, I talked to a legislator from the Minnesota state legislature, and he said the issue was tougher than the abortion issue. It was more volatile, more explosive than the abortion issue. He said he'd never seen anything quite like it. And what the Northern States Power was requesting was to expand their waste facility so they could handle a half a dozen more waste containers. And people just were terrified. I mean, the fact that they've already got a storage facility there that has a significant amount of waste sitting benignly there on the banks of the Mississippi River, was lost on people. They just assumed that these additional waste containers would be dangerous and would somehow upset the quality of life in that state. And nobody paid a lot of attention to the amount of power that was being generated by those reactors, and what that meant to the state if they in fact closed down those reactors. I mean, some people were silly enough to think that, "Well, we'll just replace this lost electricity with windmills." Well, I mean, it would take hundreds and thousands of windmills to generate the same amount of electricity. And then it would be very inconsistent, be totally dependent upon weather patterns and wind condition. So people are not well educated on the benefits they're getting from the reactors that are already in existence.
I mean, Idaho currently does not have a nuclear reactor producing electricity, and yet the power we buy from Bonneville, part of it is generated by nuclear reactors. And in fact, we're paying into the nuclear waste fund. And so even in a state small and remote, with not the energy demands that other states, still rely somewhat on nuke energy. And I think that message has not been delivered. The people are not aware of what they're getting. And when I would tell people that 20% of this nation's electricity comes from nuclear reactors, they were stunned by those numbers.
And my point was, continually, that in the long term, we're headed for an energy crisis. Our energy consumption is going up. We're not building more dams. Clean Air Act makes it tougher to build coal fired plants. We could meet the needs in the short term with gas, but long-term energy needs are being ignored, and we will come to a day of reckoning, in which we're going to have to make some hard decisions. And I don't think we're headed in that direction. I don't think DOE's planning for it. I don't think utilities are planning for it. I think it's just going to happen. And boy, what a wake-up call we're going to get one of these days, when ... demand outstrips productivity. And we're going to have to make some hard decisions. And then we will be faced with an issue that maybe we'll solve under those pressures.
Q: Of all the things nuclear that people could fear, is the nuclear waste, the dry cask storage issue, the most benign?
A: I think it is. I think it is the most benign. I think it is an issue that has been settled for the most part in eastern cities, because it's sitting there in dry cask storage. It's not too far from Baltimore, not too far from Washington. And no one is concerned. I mean, you could go out there and have a picnic next to those storage facilities, and be totally safe. So it is an emotional, irrational issue that plays well, as I said, in the political demagogues, but in fact could be solved if we let education, we let science help us in our decisions.
Q: How does a politician, who wants to do the right thing, do the right thing?
A: Well, I think,we have always said that education is how our democracy works. And I agree with that. But I think what you've got to do is get their attention. Right now, they're comfortable. The electricity is there every time you turn on the switch, when you punch the microwave numbers. And as long as that's happening, people are not going to be interested in facts about this issue. I think what you've got to do is get their attention. And the way to do that, I think, is maybe shut down 20% of the power in some of the cities, or 30% or 40% of the power in some of the cities, and say, "We're going to just spend a week as if we did not have nuclear power," and let people realize the inconvenience that they would have to deal with if, in fact, these reactors were closed down, if the anti-nuke groups had their way. And I think, once you get their attention, then you can lay out the facts to them and let them make decisions. If you let them make decisions concerning the nuke industry on their emotional knowledge, then you lose. But if you give them a taste of what the alternative really is, and that you could maybe put up a few windmills and show them how little power you get from that source, then I think that people are willing to find out what the facts are. Then I think you got a better shot of making your case and in fact winning. But current environment in which even the utilities shy away from telling the story of the nuke reactors, I think, is a very, very short-sighted way to do business.
Q: Who's to blame? We are at a situation now where our nuclear industry is in pretty bad shape. No one's contemplating building new ones, even relicensing ones.
A: Oh, I think the DOE's done a terrible job. Just in a state like Idaho, you've got a major facility out here that had 13,000 employees. And yet, there was very little information about what was going on in the site. When I was running for Congress, I tried to go out and visit. I was invited out by a number of the unions to visit. I couldn't get on the site. Somehow, I didn't have a high enough clearance to get to the site. Well, that makes a lot of people suspicious. What in the world are they doing out there, if a potential Congressional person can't get on it? A week later, they allowed a delegation from Red China to go out there, so somehow that was comforting, you see, that a democrat couldn't go on the site but some Chinese could. Between the secretive nature of the DOE, between the mistakes that have been made by DOE, and then the utilities themselves are just terrified, first of all by the cost, and secondly by the bad press they get from the nuke reactors, that both of these agencies over the past have swept it under the rug. I think DOE has not done a very good job of separating, you know, atoms for electricity as opposed to nuclear bombs. And some people confused the two.
Q: Do people trust the DOE?
A: No, people don't trust the DOE. Of all the federal agencies, DOE probably has the lowest trust level of any of them. They've made promises that they couldn't keep. They assured people of things and then found out that they were wrong. I don't think they're mean spirited. I think they're just incompetent. And as a result, you get people like the current secretary, Ms. O'Leary, who spends most of her time traveling about the world and has very little (at least, in my mind) interest in trying to resolve some of these basic problems. I mean, she's a great trade advocate and has done a good job of making the case internationally. But I think there's some problems at home that are not going to go away, and need some leadership, and I don't think she's interested in dealing with those. So this is not a top issue for DOE. Certainly, the national labs have been very, very secretive about the way they've done business. The utilities have shied away from it. So no one has really addressed the problem. We're now headed for a crisis.
Q: So you think nobody's provided leadership, you're saying?
A: That's correct.
Q: And that wouldn't just be DOE.
A: That wouldn't be DOE. I think Congress has been just as irresponsible. I think there have been a few of us who tried to speak out and tried to come up with some solutions. But I think Cecil Andres of Idaho, former governor of Idaho, probably did as much to get the nation to focus on spent fuel and upon the issue as any politician in the country. See, up to this point, politicians in the different states really didn't care what our policies were, as long as the waste was headed out of their state. When Andres put a blockade on the state and said, "You're not going to dump your waste here," then it started stacking up in Virginia, and all of a sudden the senator there became concerned. Couldn't leave Florida, and all of a sudden, senators from Florida and the governor of Florida became concerned.
And the same with Colorado and California. And once the thought of this waste sitting up in the docks of Newport Beach, Virginia, that became a real grabber, and it got the politicians' attention, and we saw some movement and some solution. But that initiative has pretty well dissipated, and we're back to where we were before, in which it's leaving these other states so they don't care; people are getting electricity so they don't care; utilities are meeting their short-term needs with gas reactors, so they're not too concerned; DOE's trying to keep their doors open, and so they've got other fish to fry. And so there's really not a national factor driving us to deal with this issue.
Q: Politically, you said, it's likely to be a hot one. But technically, is it a real issue?
A: No, it isn't. The transportation issue is not an issue. We have been transporting nuclear materials across this country for decades. I've seen a couple of charts that show the different highways that have been used and the amount of material that's been taken down those highways. I-15, just up eastern Idaho, has seen tons of spent fuel and nuclear materials cross the pavement. It's not an issue. We have not had an accident. There's not been any real harm done. I think there have been a couple of fender benders, but to this point, the transportation has been handled professionally and it's not an issue. And even if you do have a rollover, the chance of anyone being hurt by some spilled material is very unlikely. So I think the transportation issue realistically, scientifically speaking, is not one of a serious nature.
Emotionally, it just scares people beyond belief. Even in an area like Pocatello, Idaho, that's had hundreds of its citizens work at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, when we raised the issue that people would be carrying spent fuel through the railroad yards in Pocatello, or that trucks would be bringing it through I-15, which is outside of Pocatello, and does that make you nervous? The numbers just go off the scale. There's tremendous fear that somehow there's going to be an accident and their kids are going to be affected for their life. It's unreal. It's not likely to happen. And yet it's hard to convince people otherwise.
Q: Talk about differences between this country and other countries. Why is it that our nuclear industry is really on its last legs, but some other countries have successful?
A: That's a very, very good question. You know, we are the nation that generated the beginnings of the industry. Idaho was where most of the nuclear scientists that took the leadership in this industry, got their training. And now, if we decide to go back to the nuke industry, we're going to probably have to import the technology because we've lost it. And I think it's, again, for a variety of reasons. We've not done a good job of educating people to the values of nuclear issues.
But I think the real advantage that the Americans have is that we have some alternate forms of energy that we've always been able to count on. Europe does not have that luxury. If a nation like France decides they don't want nuclear power, they have no other options, unless you cover the country with windmills or solar collectors. And that will not meet the energy needs of a modern nation like France. The same with most of Europe. They don't have the energy alternatives. And so the people in those countries, if not nuclear power, what? In this country, we are under the misperception, I think, that we can shut down the nuke industry and make up the difference through, oh, conservation. Somehow, if we all turn off the lights a little earlier, or shut down the thermostat, or lower the thermostat, rely more on alternate fuels, we can make up the difference. That's not a realistic solution, but it's one that most people think, and therefore perception is driving the policy. It has been a easy issue for demagogues, for politicians trying to win office, and it's been successful for many of them.
And so it is a most misunderstood industry. It has been poorly managed, and I think that we are now dealing with the consequences of that poor management. Europe, on the other hand, got into the industry later. They did not fall into the same traps that we did, in terms of standardizing their industry. We didn't choose to do that. Each utility went its own way, which makes our engineering follow-up a nightmare. And so I just think the needs and the realities have not been lost on the Europeans, where in this country people don't understand the consequences.
Q: For environmentalists, what's the logic in singling out nuclear energy as opposed to coal power?
A: Well, I think nuclear energy's a little easier for them. I think that they've already got a built-in fear level that you don't get when you talk about a coal-fired plant. In fact, I think a coal-fired plant probably has greater risks, is a dirtier facility that creates more environmental problems than a nuke plant does. But if we're going to single out an issue that you can win on, I think the nuke industry is one that lends itself to a good environmental cause. It's great for raising funds. It's great for getting you a lot of press and generate a lot of members. And it's one that can be won because of the ham-handed handling by both the utility and by the Department of Energy.
Q: Technically speaking, if you were the coal waste negotiator as opposed to the nuclear waste negotiator, what would be the difference?
A: I think it would be much easier. I think we could go into a state and find a landfill and take waste from the coal-fired plants and wouldn't even get a headline. The reporters wouldn't be interested at all. I think that you could find a facility in central Wyoming or in parts of Utah or Idaho that would not have a concern about taking waste from the coal-fired plants of this country.
Q: Does that make any sense?
A: No, it doesn't make any sense. It doesn't have the life span that nuclear waste does, but there's greater quantities. And in the early stages, more dangerous. And yet people don't get concerned about waste from coal-fired plants like they do, nuke plants.
Q: The energy realities of this nation and the world. How do environmentalists who are concerned about air pollution and global warming deal with this?
A: I guess no one ever has insisted that we be consistent in our arguments, and somehow there'd be a logical consequence. I find it amusing, to say the least, that environmentalists who're really concerned about global warming, concerned about clean air, about clean water, will be critical of a nuke facility and sort of wink at a coal-fired plant or wink at building another dam on the rivers. Now, officially, they're not going to allow dams to be built, and there's a great deal of opposition to coal-fired plants. But we have somehow this idea that there's alternate sources that'll meet our needs, and that we really don't need a lot of additional generating power in this country. Or if we do, we can buy it from gas reactors.
See, I think, politicians, environmentalists are very short-sighted. Their immediate goal is to close down the nuke industry. And don't confuse them with facts. Don't confuse them with the long-term consequences of such a decision. This is a battle they think they can win. You know, the last few years, victories for the environmental community have been very few and far between. And so they think that this is one that is really a legitimate one that they can win, and it's a great rallying cry, and it's a great fund-raising device. And so it meets all of their needs.
Long term, it's a stupid policy, because nuclear energy is probably the most environmentally friendly source of energy that we have, unless you get into some futuristic kinds of things--that we get solar power to a point that is very efficient, can really meet a lot of needs, or that we get to energy from the ocean or energy from water, that is really 22nd or 23rd century. But getting from 1996 to that point is going to be very difficult. And if we close down the nuke industry, it's going to be, I think, virtually impossible to get there without doing some real damage to our environment.
Q: What's their response to this?
A: Well, their response is, "No, that's not true. We can get there just by conservation. If we just turn off our lights a little earlier and shut down or turn the thermos down a couple of notches, we can save all the energy we need." Frankly, you could probably save four or five percent of the energy this nation consumes, by being a little more efficient. But not the 20%. And I think that they're fooling themselves if they think that they can somehow make up the 20% through energy efficiency.
Q: And is this an elitist view?
A: I think it's an elitist view. I think it's a group of people that's sitting in a nice, modern, air-conditioned buildings that try to predict not so much what's good for the long term of the nation, but what's good for their own environmental group, and then what generates the most money, and what keeps those folks in business. I think they've become like a lot of bureaucracies--self perpetuating. And to do that, you don't always take the best long-term interest of the nation.
Q: But how does their position, their argument work for the world as a whole?
A: Well, I think it's contradictory. In fact, I think it gets the world going in just the opposite direction, because without this kind of power source, you've got two or three nations that are just exploding, in terms of economic development, and the demand for electric-driven gadgets is just going wild. And so, you know, you take a nation like China with a billion plus people. How do you meet their electricity needs? Do we dam the Yangtze River? Do we dam all their other major rivers? Well, if we do that, I think that's a greater environmental problem than a nuke plant somewhere. Or do we have them build a gazillion coal-fired plants to meet all their power needs? What does that do to global warming? What does that do to the ozone and to the pollutants in the atmosphere?
Q: What are environmentalists saying to these arguments?
A: Conservation. Conservation. Solar power. In many instances, it's, "Don't confuse me with the long-term facts. We've got an issue right now that we're winning, and we're going to continue to beat that horse until we can show a victory."
Q: You talked a bit about lack of political leadership. Talk about the current administration. What's their stand on nuclear issues?
A: Well, of all of the Democratic candidates a few years ago, I kind of got the impression that Clinton would be the most pro-nuclear. You get someone like Sam Nunn, who is really sensible and would have, I think, come up and given us some leadership on this issue. But I thought that Clinton and Gore, both come from states that have a nuclear presence. In Arkansas, of course, it's the reactors for nuclear power, or electricity, and in Tennessee, it's the Oak Ridge facility. And Gore's been around that facility for a lot of years, seen the kinds of things they've done and can do. But I think that once in the office of the presidency, they saw not a lot of support coming from the nuke industry, and a lot of support coming in from the environmental community. I think the Democratic Congress was a little more inclined to the environmental side, against the nuke industry. And so I think the Administration has taken an anti-nuclear bias. I think that they've not done a lot to promote a solution to this problem. I think a lot [that] they've been driven by politics. The Nevada solution was not looked at realistically by either side. One side saw it as a solution to their energy problems. The other side (Clinton and the Democrats) saw it as a way to help the Senators from Nevada deal with a very popular issue. I'm a little disappointed by what the Administration has done. Maybe the second term will be a little easier because they don't have to worry about re-election. And obviously, Senator Gore's going to be a player in this.
Q: Gore has, supposedly, strong environmental views. Is he a factor in this?
A: Yes, I think he is, because I think everything the administration does from this point on will be not only, how will this show on Clinton's record as president, but how will this play in an election in the year 2000, with Al Gore as the candidate, or any Democrat as the candidate? So I think you always have to look at the politics of the issue. I think if they could come up with a good solution that had scientific basis, then they might get behind it. But I don't see any such solution out there right now.
I mean, the Department of Energy and the utilities continue to insist on Yucca Mountain as the solution. Nevada's going to fight that tooth and toenail. The administration is going to be somewhat torn, but I think will support the Nevada delegation and Governor Miller in Nevada. So I don't see any permanent solution. Maybe the best thing that'll come out of this would be some kind of temporary facility like I was trying to identify a couple of years ago. And the politics and the reality of the situation will force some kind of temporary solution. And I frankly didn't think that's all bad.
Q: What's going to drive this and put this on the agenda, if there's been no leadership?
A: I think it'll take a crisis to help us solve this issue. This nation does not deal in the long term very well. We deal with issues as they become critical. I think the shutdown of a utility and the loss of electricity by a significant number of people in the northeast would make a difference. But until you have a crisis, this will continue to be on the back burner while we deal with foreign policy, or while we deal with gas lines, or while we deal with some crisis in the Middle East. We almost deal with problems on a crisis-by-crisis basis.
Q: Can you conceive of a time in the future when this will be a robust industry and people will be happy again? Are there any precedents for such a turnaround?
A: Well, yes. I think there are. I think there's some things that could happen that could change this. And again, I think a crisis, a real major power shortage in this nation that forced us, as a nation, to sit down and say, "All right, here are our alternatives. How do we want to really solve this in the long term?" And whether that's an environmental crisis because there's so much pollutants in the air from coal-fired furnaces and oil-fired furnaces, to where this nation says, "Look, we've got to change policy and we've got to change it in the short term if we're going to survive, if we're going to remain a viable nation." And then people will start focusing on the issue and weigh the pros and cons of all of the power sources. And I think, if they will do that in a fair manner, then the nuke industry has got a life ahead of it. If we continue to let emotions and irrational things drive our policies, then the nuke industry's dead.