HOT, HOT, HOT: The Future of Nuclear Power

Friday, June 1, 2001

Is nuclear power making a comeback? More than twenty years after the accident at Three Mile Island and fifteen years after the reactor explosion at Chernobyl, the image of nuclear power seems to be changing once again. President Bush has included nuclear energy as part of his national energy plan. The nuclear industry has begun to promote nuclear energy as the clean energy alternative. And a recent poll showed that almost 60 percent of Californians favor nuclear power. So just how safe is nuclear power today? Does it make economic sense to start building new nuclear plants? And what do we do with the radioactive waste?

Recorded on Friday, June 1, 2001

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, Bush and Cheney like it, and polls indicate that the aversion the American people have long held for it may be softening. Nuclear energy.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the future of nuclear energy. Back in the 1950's proponents foresaw a glowing future for nuclear energy. Louis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, went so far as to say, and I quote, "it is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter."

Those hopes were dashed by two events. In 1979, Three Mile Island; an accident in a nuclear plant on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania showed the American people what might go wrong. The second event, 1986, Chernobyl; what might go wrong, did go wrong when a nuclear plant at Chernobyl in the Ukraine exploded spewing radiation over much of Eastern Europe. A glowing future indeed.

And here we are today, fifteen years after Chernobyl. Sighting the nation's growing energy needs and new nuclear technology, President Bush has made nuclear energy part of his overall energy plan. That, of course, raises a few questions. Is nuclear energy safe today? Does it truly make economic sense? And what are we going to do with all that radioactive waste.

Joining us, three guests. Dan Hirsch is former director of the Program on Nuclear Policy at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Fred Wehling is from the Center for Non-proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. And David Rossin, a consultant to the nuclear industry is a former Assistant Secretary of Energy.

Title: No Nukes is Good Nukes?

Peter Robinson: Nuclear power plants today generate about 20% of electricity in the United States. This past spring the head of President Bush's energy task force, Vice President Dick Cheney said, I quote the Vice President, "We'd like to see an increase in the percentage of electricity generated from nuclear power," close quote. A bigger proportion of our electricity from nuclear power. Do you agree with the Vice President? Dave?

David Rossin: I agree that we'd like to see it. It's going take several years, a period of time before we can start a new nuclear power plant.

Peter Robinson: An important goal and worth pursuing?

David Rossin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Fred?

Fred Wehling: We could do it. But it won't give us energy independence and we've got to worry about proliferation.

Peter Robinson: Should we do it?

Fred Wehling: Ah, yeah.

Peter Robinson: Dan?

Dan Hirsch: No, grave risks, and the fact that the specifics of the President's proposal would make those risks much larger.

Peter Robinson: Alright, we'll get to all of this. Now, for you, you listen to this; 1979, reactor at Three Mile Island overheats, threatens an explosion before the cri--there was no explosion--but before the crisis is averted, a hundred and forty thousand people are evacuated. 1986, nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, reactor does explode, and it burns for days, flames, plumes, send radio active materials spewing into the air. If nuclear power wasn't safe in 1979 at Three Mile Island and in 1986 at Chernobyl, why should anybody believe that nuclear power is safe now?

David Rossin: Those two accidents are very, very different. Three Mile Island--our reactors--the United States--yes, the accident was bad. The accident destroyed the reactor core. I spent the next four years of my life running a department that studied the Three Mile Island accident. But you've got to keep in mind that the Three Mile Island accident, nobody got hurt. Not one single person, not one member of the public, not one member of the operating crew, or the clean up crew got radiation that exceeded the allowable standards. And those are the same standards that apply to your dentist technician, who takes x-rays in the office. Now, nobody hurt at Three Mile Island. Chernobyl, a design of the Russians, a design that we examined here and rejected. I won't say that we understood exactly the accident that happened. But it had characteristics that we didn't like. And couldn't have been licensed in the U.S.

Peter Robinson: And so don't worry about a repeat of Chernobyl because that kind of reactor is something that would never be built in this country even in the first place. But what about Three Mile Island?

David Rossin: The concept that we used--that the Three Mile Island reactor is based on--called a pressurized water reactor--more then two thirds of our operating reactors are pressurized water reactors. They're made by one…

Peter Robinson: Two thirds of a hundred and three.

David Rossin: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: There are a hundred and three at the present?

David Rossin: That's right, made by one manufacturer or another. But the concept is the same. That's the concept that the French reactors are based on about a third of Japanese reactors--and it is a safe technology. Is it zero risk? Nothing's zero risk. But it's safer then coal, safer the oil, safer then gas. Based on the statistics we have--the operating history we have, and the safety systems do work.

Peter Robinson: Okay, now here's what I--I was half expecting to hear from Dave, but didn't here. 1979 was a long time ago. We have all kinds of new technology. Three Mile Is--Chernobyl simply won't happen because we wouldn't have permitted a reactor of that kind in this country in the first place. But we don't even have to worry about Three Mile Island because technology's brought us further along.

Fred Wehling It has. We don't have to worry about an--an accident of that severity given what we've learned since Three Mile Island. We certainly have to worry about, however, an accident not in the U.S., but internationally, an accident similar to that of Chernobyl, because those reactors are still operating in Russia and the former Soviet countries…

Peter Robinson: Now we come to you. Don't worry about Chernobyl, it wouldn't have been built here in the first place, Three Mile Island was somewhat overblown, lots of people evacuated, but nobody was hurt. And in any event, the technology has marched along--that won't happen again. So, nuclear energy is safe.

Dan Hirsch: Well I'm afraid each of the premises is in error from my perspective. First of all, when you said that we would never build such a reactor in the United States, I was asked by the House Interior Committee at the time of the Chernobyl accident to review the Hanford reactor operated by this country, unlicensed, no containment structure built to graphite. And the problems we identified, which were very similar to Chernobyl, led to its closure. So we had a reactor almost identical in this country.

Secondly, the industry is now proposing to build a number of new reactors that had many of the same safety problems that the Chernobyl reactor has. Pebble Bed reactor would be built out of graphite so it can burn the way Chernobyl did. It would be built with no containment structure, where Chernobyl had partial containment.

And then the last argument that you made, that Three Mile Island hurt nobody. Dr. Wing's study indicated, in fact, that you had excess cancers in the areas where the plume went. And the Presidential commission on TMI said we got within two hours of a complete meltdown. If an operator hadn't figured out what was going on, we would have had complete core melt. So all those premises are wrong.

But the fundamental question comes down to this, a reactor has in it, when it operates, about fifteen billion curies of radioactivity. And we measure permissible levels of radioactivity in millionths of a millionth of a curie. Immense amounts of radioactivity. If there were an accident, if someone messed up--made the kind of mistakes that everyone makes in a normal life, you could have hundreds of thousands of cancers in the surrounding community. So we have a technology that's unforgiving. You cannot have a serious mistake. So the fundamental question's not that about the technology, it's about the human beings who run it. And I've come to the conclusion, and I've changed over my lifetime on this, that the technology with a different species could be run safely. But our species, where there's always Murphy's Rule being more powerful then Einstein's laws, there's always something that goes wrong. There's always a mistake that's made. There's always a design flaw. And if the risks of such an accident…

Peter Robinson: Always a mistake that gets made? Well, just what is nuclear

power's safety record?

Title: Core Issues

Peter Robinson: Paul O'Neil, the Secretary of the Treasury said recently, I'm paraphrasing rather then getting it exactly right; "Aside from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the record of nuclear--or nuclear power plants have been quite safe." Now it is--but the point is that Chernobyl happened in another--in--in a different place in a different time. And Three Mile Island, A, wasn't that bad and wouldn't happen again.

Dan Hirsch: Well almost all of that's incorrect. You indicate only two reactor accidents. Where I spend much of my time in Southern California--we had a melt down in 1959, a reactor that was power--providing electricity to Moorpark. It's called the Sodium Reactor Experiment. And it had no containment structure. And a third of the core melted. No one knew about it because the AUC kept it secret for twenty years. There've been similar accidents, the SL-1, the Windscale--if you look throughout the reactor operating history, there have been quite a few very serious accidents. And, let me just add this, the industry itself, with its own probabilistic risk assessments, estimates that the probability of a serious core accident--if you have a hundred reactors operating over a period of several decades, something on the order of 40%, from their own estimates.

Peter Robinson: You say in effect, that nuclear energy is simply too potent and too dangerous to be handled by human beings. So would you then be opposed to nuclear submarines? Are you opposed to that kind of--to nuclear reactors being used under any circumstances anywhere?

Dan Hirsch: No. I think that there are military exigencies where people need to think those things through. But if you have alternates for producing civilian power, do you want to risk a few hundred thousand cancers? And we have not yet gotten to the waste, the proliferation of economics…

Peter Robinson: Waste--waste comes next, we'll get to that, I promise. What about this notion that it's simply too dangerous?

David Rossin: There is risk with nuclear power. We understand it pretty well. We learn more every year. You compare the risks of the alternative ways generating electricity and you come to the conclusion that we need all our reasonable sor--sources. Not just nuclear. We need oil, we need coal, we need gas.

Peter Robinson: So you make a very modest claim. You're not saying…

David Rossin: I'm--I'm making a claim that we understand this technology. That the risks are low enough so that it justifies enlarging it and continuing it. And that the risk of the alternatives are even larger. And the greatest risk is a society with out enough energy to supply the reasonable needs of people.

Peter Robinson: Next topic: Nuclear Waste. Should we reuse it? Can we get rid of it?

Title: Waste Not, Want Not

Peter Robinson: Tell me about the--the dangers--or the difficulties of disposing of nuclear waste, Fred.

Fred Wehling: There are a number of them. The num--the main concern with the waste from commercial power reactors is what happens--is--are you going to take the plutonium out of the waste? That is, are you going to reprocess it and separate it and potentially use that in other reactors? Or are you going to keep all the waste together, plutonium, strontium, all the highly radioactive material, are you going to immobilize it, put it in, you know, giant canisters, seal it underground in a safe facility, keep it away environmentally safe, keep it safe from proliferators? That's the choice that this country made back in 1975 under the Ford administration. We're not going to separate the plutonium out…

Peter Robinson: President Ford did what?

Fred Wehling: President Ford made the decision to go f--for the once through fuel cycle. That is, once you burn fuel, uranium fuel in a nuclear reactor, we're not going to do what India did to make its nuclear weapons. That is, we're not going to take that fuel, take the plutonium out of it, put it back and mix it back in the reactors…

Peter Robinson: So we have President Ford sa--Ford says there's no recycling of nuclear fuel. President Carter does the same thing in 1977, and that becomes…

Fred Wehling: President Regan reaffirms it. President Clinton reaffirms…

Peter Robinson: …in 1978 it becomes part of the nuc--ant--Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

Fred Wehling: Nuclear Non-proliferation Act, right.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Now there are plenty of people who say that in fact it wasn't really Three Mile Island in 1979 that put a damper on the nuclear energy industry in this country. And indeed not since the late '70's not a single new plant has been ordered. But, this decision to forbid the reprocessing or recycling of nuclear fuel. Why was the decision made? What was the danger seen?

David Rossin: It was--it was quoted as being proliferation concerns. I believe that the decisions were entirely political.

Peter Robinson: The pretext--if--if you--if it was a pretext, you'll tell us in a moment why you think it was, but the pretext was that the waste, plutonium, was too easy to turn into nuclear bombs, right? So that there were concerned that people could steal this stuff and make atomic weapons out of it, right?

David Rossin: It's not that simple.

Peter Robinson: It's not? Go ahead.

David Rossin: Plutonium's hard to come by. It's important to safe guard it. We put a lot of effort and a lot of money into making sure it's safe guarded, so that it can't be stolen and made into a bomb. Can plutonium explode? Yes. Can the plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel after it's separated explode? Yes, in theory it can, in practice it--you can make it explode, you--you don't want to make weapons out of it, and no country ever has. Not that kind of material. Not the kind of material that comes out of our power reactors and--that we would have separated.

But even so the French commercially reprocess their reactor fuel. They recycle it. The hope would be that by this time we would be starting to build breeder reactors, which could burn that plutonium and make more plutonium. So you wouldn't have to mine more uranium. And, this was the dream--this was the dream that nuclear power was based on. President Ford--his decision was not in 1975, it was 5 days before the election in 1976. And what he said was, we're going to put a hold on things for up to three years until we make sure our safe guards are in place. Most of us in the nuclear industry figured Ford's statement was kind of a throw away to counter Jimmy Carter's campaigning, and…

Peter Robinson: And what was Carter campaigning on?

David Rossin: He was--he was saying, that he was very concerned that the Ford administration wasn't doing enough to safe guard nuclear fuel, that reprocessing was dangerous…

Peter Robinson: If it was--if they were playing politics with it, the reason they were playing politics was because the American people were scared. Reassure us on recycling. Why should we not be scared of it?

David Rossin: Because we can safeguard the material. That's number one. The--the actual concern, you know, it wasn't really the terrorist issue. That scared some people. But that wasn't Carter's reasoning. Carter's reasoning was that some other country would--would surreptitiously take the plutonium from its reprocessing plant, have things ready, go out and make a bomb. He never tested that with the experts who really understood these things. They would have said, you know, okay…

Peter Robinson: You can't make weapons from that stuff.

David Rossin: Yeah, you could. But you wouldn't.

Peter Robinson: Dan, listen, Dr. Charles Till, physicist, "If you," I'm quoting now, "If you recycle, you separate out, exactly those elements that are radioactive and use them in your reactor. You produce energy with them and they're gone," close quote. So, what we need is not to dig holes in Nevada to store radioactive materials that will continue to be radioac--or that have a half-life of twenty five thousand years. What we need to do is simply get rid of the waste material by recycling it.

Dan Hirsch: Well, but it doesn't go away. You're converting the most dangerous stuff on earth into the second most dangerous stuff on earth. And you don't get rid of all of the plutonium. In fact, for the kinds of reactors that they're now proposing--ones that will use what's called MOX--mixed oxide fuel--for every hundred atoms of plutonium that you would fission, you would produce ninety-nine new atoms. And Dave's proposal to build breeder reactors, is designed to breed even more plutonium.

Peter Robinson: A breeder reactor?

Dan Hirsch: Breeds more plutonium then it consumes. We are awash in plutonium. Every single power reactor in the United States produces approximately ten tons of plutonium over its lifetime. It takes a few pounds to make a nuclear weapon. And despite Dave's argument that you might--that you can make a weapon but you wouldn't want to--India made it out of reactor grade, the United States has detonated reactor grade weapons…

Peter Robinson: Do you agree with all of this?

Fred Wehling: Oh yes. That's how India got the--most of the plutonium for its nuclear weapons program. That's how Saddam Hussein tried to--tried to do it--would've succeeded in doing it had the UN not stopped him.

David Rossin: I'm sorry; I disagree with that statement entirely. India's reactor was a Canadian designed reactor. It made weapons material and it made power at the same time. Totally different then our reactors. The key is a very simple…

Peter Robinson: Let me try a proposal on Dan; that nuclear power might actually be good for the environment.

Title: Split Atoms, Not Wood

Peter Robinson: Burton Richter, noble prize-winning physicist, quote, "The environmental considerations of nuclear power are nothing compared to the disasters of global warming. We can handle safety and proliferation much more then we can handle mass global pollution and environmental destruction," close quote. A noble prizewinner says in effect that you Dan, by pitting yourself against nuclear power, are making yourself an enemy of the environment.

Dan Hirsch: It's a serious position. I think it's wrong. But it's a serious position. The kinds of energy that we are currently relying on, coal in particular produce a fair amount of carbon dioxide. Nuclear reactors produce relatively little carbon dioxide. The problem is they produce a huge amount of plutonium, strontium 90, cesium 137, iodines, tech--technetiums and so forth. And so, you are trading off in that comparison, carbon dioxide against extraordinarily dangerous radioactive waste that's dangerous for half a million years, and has to be kept somehow isolated from the environment. A normally operating power plant--nuclear power plant--is indeed, if you just look at its day-to-day operations, less dangerous then a normally operating coal plant. But when you add in the potential for accident, the long life waste, the proliferation risk, then the calculation tilts dramatically in the other direction.

Peter Robinson: Which way does it tilt in your mind, Fred?

Fred Wehling: Nuclear power, environmentally speaking, is much safer. Not only do you produce carbon dioxide from coal fired--oil fired plants who produce monoxide, poisonous gas, produce particulates, carcinogens, all sorts of materials go directly into the environment, they become an environmental threat right now. Not ten thousand years ago--not then thousand years in the future, not when, and not contained as they are in a nuclear power plant. They go into the environment right now. The Exxon-Valdez accident was a very unforg--very unforgiving accident. We all remember what happened there. If we continue to increase our dependence on oil and fossil fuels, that's going to happen again, guaranteed.

Peter Robinson: Fred, this is a question for you. Vice President Cheney's call for more nuclear powel--power, rests on the premise, of course, that the nation faces an energy crisis. What about this? Nonsense, California faces an energy crisis because of some lousy so-called deregulation legislation that made a mess of the market. But the nation already has coal and oil reserves that will last for decades. And we're already seeing tens of billions of dollars in capital being poured into the construction of new coal generating plants. There's no crisis. The markets are already responding. California's a special case, but the rest of the country can do just fine on coal and oil alone. What do you make of that?

Fred Wehling: There is a crisis, especially here in California. Nuclear power is on option in the--in the medium to long term for having a more secure and more environmentally safe energy future. We've just got to worry about a few concerns, especially the possibility of nuclear commerce and plutonium, and about the possibility that terrorists or proliferators will get their hands on plutonium if its separated out.

Peter Robinson: The crisis is genuine. And the problems of nuclear power can be handled.

Fred Wehling: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Dan?

Dan Hirsch: Just the opposite. I must disagree with Fred. If you look at the numbers, the Department of Energy just issued a report indicating that we could get the equivalent of six hundred and fifty new--new power plants, just from some careful use of efficiency technologies. And that produces no carbon dioxide, no carbon monoxide, no radioactive waste, not risk of accidents, no nuclear weapons proliferation risks, and it's far cheaper.

Peter Robinson: The final question: Can nuclear power survive in the energy market place without federal protection?

Title: The Price Is Right

Peter Robinson: Now it's one thing to say the nuclear industry ought to be able to function in the free market, okay? Just go ahead, enter the free market. It's another to say that the nuclear power industry ought to receive federal subsidies or federal protection. Under the Price Anderson Act, Congress limits the nuclear industries liabilities for catastrophes to ten billion dollars, which, if a catastrophe should take place would be a drop in the bucket to what it would cost to put things right, if a big catastrophe happened here in the United States. The Price Anderson Act is up for renewal next year. On the one hand, the industry itself argues that, A, another Chernobyl or big accident is impossible, and, B, the act involves no subsidy at all. But, on the other hand we have Vice President Cheney calling for the Price Anderson Act to be renewed, saying, quote, "It needs to be renewed. Otherwise nobody's going to invest in nuclear power plants," close quote. So should the Price Anderson Act be renewed?

David Rossin: Yes.

Peter Robinson: How come?

David Rossin: I was Assistant Secretary of Energy for Nuclear at the time it was renewed last time.

Peter Robinson: Which was how long ago?

David Rossin: In1987. The Price Anderson Act is an excellent piece of legislation. It's similar to what, air--airlines, ocean liners, another of other industries have, but it's better. It provides no fault insurance incase something goes wrong. None of which is government money. All of the money that has to cover this would be from contingent liabilities. That means that all the nuclear utilities…

Peter Robinson: But if the government is limiting liability--that's--that's--that's valuable. I mean if the industry had to put together a huge operation at Lloyd's of London, they'd pa--they'd pay for it. I mean, it's worth something. It's a subsidy of a kind. Maybe…

David Rossin: But there's a deductible on this. They--they buy insurance for the first billion of this. And they've been getting premiums back every year because there haven't been any claims on it.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so this is--this is a limit on liability, the way we limit liability under tort law in various states, the way certain other industries…

David Rossin: Let's be realistic. I don't think, and--and the people who license nuclear power plants don't think there's going to be a catastrophic accident. When we have a flood, when we have a--a huge fire, when we have an earthquake--the federal government is called in, and a decision is made about whether to help people out. I can't imagine--I can't imagine anything nuclear leading to this kind of thing. But if it did, there would be federal support beyond the sixteen billion that the nuclear reactor utilities have committed…

Peter Robinson: Okay, so the federal government offers protections and supports to all kinds of industries, and all kinds of commercial under takings, including, for example, home mortgages, insures bank deposits for a hundred thousand dollars, it helps to control liability across a wide spread of commercial endeavor. What's wrong with doing the same with nuclear energy?

Dan Hirsch: There' not a single energy technology that has a protection against liability. This is unique to the nuclear industry. And it's the best example for all you free market economists that the economy knows that this is too dangerous. No insurance company, in the free market, will provide insurance for nuclear power plant accidents over two hundred million dollars. And the industry itself is unwilling to self-insure for more then a few billion. The Nuclear

Regulatory Commission estimates that you can have three hundred billion dollars worth of liability. So the market has spoken. It has said the technology is too dangerous to be able to insure.

Peter Robinson: What do you make of Price Anderson? Are you in favor of it, or not?

Fred Wehling: I am in favor of it. It should be renewed. It's designed to control out of control damage awards, rather than, that's the real risk that it's dealing with.

Peter Robinson: That they're especially vulnerable to this industry because, in part, because of political activists, is especially vulnerable to harassment suits, it's a way of controlling…

Fred Wehling: Right. The risk of--the risk of…

Dan Hirsch: That's absolutely silly. The only thing the bill does--the only thing the law does is says that if there's an accident and there's more then ten billion dollars of damages, you're stuck. It has nothing to do with frivolous litigations. It says if there's a serious accident, you can't recover, or the feds have to pay.

David Rossin: It was recognized that the insurance company said we have no experience with any of these kinds of accidents. We don't know what kind of premiums to charge you.

Dan Hirsch: Why don't they trust you--why don't they trust you? You just told the public that these things can't have an accident. The insurance industry says, I don't trust Dave Rossin; I'm not going to write a policy. Why don't they trust you if you're so right?

David Rossin: No they didn't--they said we don't know what kind of premiums to charge.

Dan Hirsch: No…

(Several participants talking at the same time)

David Rossin: They write the deductible, and it's a billion dollars or more, written by private insurers…

Peter Robinson: Gentlemen, it's television. Alas, I have to bring it to a close. Closing question. I'm asking each of you for a prediction. As we said at the beginning of the program, nuclear plants now supply about a fifth, 20% of the nation's electricity. The Bush administration wants to see the percentage grow. Two decades from now, this is asking a prediction, not what should happen, what you think will happen. In the year 2021, what will the percentage of energy be supplied by nuclear plants in the United States? Fred?

Fred Wehling: 35 %.

David Rossin: I don't think it will be quite that high. I'd say nearer 25%. I think we'll be building nuclear power plants again. And we're going to have to replace not only old nuclear plants, but coal fired and gas plants.

Peter Robinson: But more then replacement would--we would be adding capacity.

David Rossin: Yeah, I think we'll be adding by then.

Peter Robinson: Dan?

Dan Hirsch: I would say 10 %. I think that no new ones are going to get built, and half of the ones that we have now are decrepit and will be shutting down.

Peter Robinson: Dan, Fred, and Dave, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: Well, our guests disagreed on everything, from whether nuclear energy is safe to whether it's good for the environment, to whether the federal government ought to help the industry out a little bit. Here's one of the many ads appearing for nuclear energy. But it looks as those it's going to take good PR to get new nuclear plants built, up, and running.

I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.