(Courtesy of anl.gov)
Not long ago, nuclear energy was seen as a dying industry. There hasn't been a nuclear power plant built in 30 years, and the disaster at Three-Mile Island all but sealed the industry's fate. But today there are serious moves underway to bring nuclear back, and they are set to begin in the South. Host Bruce Gellerman reports. LOE also speaks with Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. Moore spent 15 years advocating against nuclear power, then he had a change of heart. Moore talks about his new role as a lobyist for the nuclear power industry.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. Coming up, a founder of Greenpeace sees the light – and it’s powered by nuclear energy.
But first: There are 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States. And they generate about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. There were plans for a lot more nuclear plants. Then in 1979 the meltdown of a reactor at Three Mile Island put the kibosh on the industry. But now, like a phoenix, nuclear power is rising out of the ashes. Concerns over the burning of fossil fuels, global warming and the rising price of energy are setting the stage for a nuclear power renaissance.
O’DRISCOLL: Oh boy, they do. (laughs) They do. The goal is to make nuclear the premier source of power generation, but it’s a very difficult, very politically difficult, very expensive process to get that done.
GELLERMAN: There hasn’t been a nuclear power plant built in the United States in nearly 30 years. But despite past difficulties, utilities are taking steps to build no less than 16 new nuclear power plants over the next decade. Mary Olsen, with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, says three-quarters of the plants will be located in the south.
OLSEN: The southeast is the nuclear heartland of the United States because of the number not only of reactors, but fuel factories, nuclear bomb factories, and all the supporting facilities. And this is already a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority communities in the United States.
GELLERMAN: But recent public opinion polls suggest 56 percent of Americans now favor nuclear power. And many people who once said "not in our backyard" now say, "put it in the front." So, when Duke Power just announced plans to build two new reactors in South Carolina, Jim Cooke, head of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce, set out the welcome mat.
COOKE: It is huge news. We were just keeping our fingers crossed. We didn’t want to say, ‘we knew they were looking at several different sites.’
GELLERMAN: Duke chose Cherokee County, population 54,000. The textile mills and peach industries are long gone. Unemployment hovers near eight percent and Jim Cooke says just building the new reactors would put a thousand people to work.
COOKE: The number of jobs that they bring in during construction, and those types of folks coming in, will bring a lot of money in. And tax-wise it’ll be a windfall for our county. I don’t even think we realize the economic impact that it’s going to have here yet.
GELLERMAN: To sweeten the deal, Cherokee County is cutting Duke Power’s property taxes on the proposed 2,000-acre site in half. The company already runs a natural gas-powered plant nearby and seven nuclear reactors around the state.
COOKE: Duke power has been a great corporate citizen here. They’re a good company and they’re not just gonna come in here and go away.
GELLERMAN: Actually, once Duke did come to the county with plans to build a nuclear plant. And it did go away.
COOKE: We got our hopes up earlier, back in the – whoo, wow, I was in the service – probably the 80’s. They were gonna build here on this exact site. Matter of fact, there’s an old reactor that they had started and then, for different political and economic reasons, you know, boom, Duke Power pulled out of it. And they sold it to this fella in North Carolina, and he ran a film company and actually made a few films down there…if you recall the film "The Abyss."
[MOVIE CLIP - SOUNDS OF A HELICOPTER]
MAN: That there is a bottomless pit, baby. Two and a half miles straight down.
GELLERMAN: The filmmaker of "The Abyss" flooded the unfinished reactor containment vessel and used it for the underwater scenes. Ironically, the movie deals with recovering a sunken nuclear submarine.
MAN: Whatever happens, it’s up to us.
MAN 2: That guy scares me more than anything that’s down there.
GELLERMAN: The site is now a rusting shambles. The cost to build and abandon the reactor: six hundred million dollars. But Duke spokesman Tim Petite says times and attitudes have changed, and the old Cherokee site is the perfect place to build an atomic power plant.
PETITE: Well, right now we’re estimating that’ll be somewhere between four and six billion dollars, the initial investment in these.
GELLERMAN: Lot of money.
PETITE: It is a lot of money. You know, these are very large capital investments just like any large generating station is. But again, as you look at the life of that plant, the fuel costs associated with nuclear is much less than the other generation, and so it pays benefits to the company, the shareholders and the customers over the long-term.
GELLERMAN: To jumpstart the nation’s stagnant nuclear industry, the federal government is providing $13 billion in incentives and subsidies. If there is an accident, utilities’ liability is largely covered. The licensing process has also been streamlined, and taxpayers will pay half the $47 million application fee. Anti-nuclear activist Mary Olsen says that money is just a down payment on the trillions of dollars nuclear power will eventually cost.
OLSEN: Nuclear power is not cost-effective or competitive. The only way to build new reactors in the United Sates is to put tax dollars into it. What if we put trillions of dollars into wind, efficiency and solar? Couldn’t we do it faster? I bet we could.
GELLERMAN: One issue slowing down the renaissance in nuclear power is radioactive waste. Right now there are 50,000 tons of spent fuel rods at power plants around the nation. The controversial federal repository that was supposed to store reactor waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.
To speed things up, the Bush administration has proposed streamlining the licensing process and lifting the cap on the amount of radioactive waste that can be buried at Yucca. Still, energy reporter Mary O’Driscoll says waste remains the industry’s Achilles heel.
O’DRISCOLL: They are paying to store nuclear waste of spent fuel onsite which does not make them happy, doesn’t make their shareholders happy, doesn’t make their rate payers happy. A lot of members of Congress aren’t happy. And so it’s a very difficult situation to resolve, and the feeling is that until you resolve, finally, the Yucca Mountain situation and get it operating and make sure that it’s operating, that the future of nuclear power in the United States is really going to be questionable.
PETITE: Well, certainly that’s something we’re taking a look at. We’ll follow that very closely.
GELLERMAN: Again, Tim Petite from Duke Power.
PETITE: We want to see a lot of progress made on that front. And before we decide to go forward with building additional nuclear plants we’ll certainly be evaluating the storage of the fuel before that decision’s made.
GELLERMAN: Petite says that decision could be made in a year...maybe two.
[SOUNDS FROM MOVIE, THE ABYSS]
GELLERMAN: One of the leading advocates of nuclear power today was once one of its most outspoken opponents. Dr. Patrick Moore was a co-founder of the environmental group Greenpeace and served seven years as a director of Greenpeace International. Nowadays Moore has teamed up with former EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman to spread the word about nuclear power. Their organization, The Clean And Safe Energy Coalition, lobbies on behalf of the industry.
MOORE: Yes, I am very proud to be a spokesperson for nuclear energy, for the technology. I’m not pushing any particular company or any particular group of companies or any particular organization, for that matter, other than the Coalition for Clean and Safe Energy. That’s the only one I’m backing, and the reason for that is because I support the technology.
MOORE: Well, name-calling doesn’t really help much with the discussion, does it? I think it’s important to get to the issue. And it’s certainly not about me. The whole issue of energy for this world, and the other issue of climate change, which is very strongly related to energy in the form of fossil fuels, which account for about 85 percent of our total energy consumption in this world. These are big issues. One could say that the relationship between energy for civilization and the potential for climate change is the biggest issue we have today. And, from a scientific point of view, perhaps the most difficult.
GELLERMAN: So climate change poses a difficult choice. Is nuclear power the lesser of many evils?
MOORE: If you want to think of everything as evil, like so many of the activists do today. One of the reasons I left Greenpeace was because I had to be against everything all the time. I was really more interested, after about 15 years of being against things every day, I was trying to figure out what the solutions were and figuring out what I was in favor of instead.
And when it comes to energy these days there’s sort of two schools of thought from an environmental point of view. One group, which I think includes Greenpeace and many other of the activist organizations, actually believes that we can phase out fossil fuels and nuclear energy, and at the same time they don’t like hydroelectric dams. That accounts for about 99 percent of all of the energy in the world for making electricity. You cannot propose a solution which eliminates 99 percent of the world’s energy.
So I believe, and I think the second school of thought would be that the only way to substantially reduce fossil fuel consumption is to have a combination of renewables plus nuclear. Because you have to have a base load; you cannot make base load electricity with wind and solar, which are intermittent and unreliable. They can only fill a certain niche. And the only base load sources of power are hydroelectric, coal and nuclear.
Hydroelectric, unfortunately, is largely built out to capacity. Therefore, the real choice is between coal and nuclear. And, in addition, nuclear energy does not produce greenhouse gases and does not produce air pollution like coal does. So I don’t think it’s so much the lesser of two evils as, in fact, a very clean choice. And if you actually look at the statistics, a very safe choice for energy production.
GELLERMAN: Your old organization Greenpeace reported just in April 2006 that it reviewed NRC, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, documents and found there were two hundred near-misses to meltdowns since 1986.
MOORE: Ah, well, near-misses. you know, there’s actually ten levels of incidence that need to be reported to the NRC. Most of these are very minor. It’s sort of like saying you have two hundred car crashes where nobody was hurt. You know, well, okay, so the cars have to be fixed, but no one was hurt. And no one has ever been hurt by a nuclear reactor accident in the United States. It’s plain and simple. Even the worst accident that ever occurred, at Three Mile Island, did not hurt anybody. So, okay, accidents can happen. Accidents may happen in the future. But you have to weigh the risk against the benefit, and in addition to that you have to look at the record.
And the record shows that with the exception of Chernobyl, which was a stupid design, that nuclear reactors have been safe. France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and it has not had a history of accidents that have hurt anybody, whereas 6,000 people die in coal mines every year, 45,000 that die just in the U.S. just from car accidents – it’s 1.2 million worldwide – and yet no one is banning the automobile. Why do people have such different perceptions of risk for different technologies? I do not understand this.
GELLERMAN: Well Dr. Moore, I want to thank you very much.
MOORE: Thank you Bruce, it’s been enjoyable talking to you.
GELLERMAN: Dr. Patrick Moore is head of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and chief scientist of Greenspirit.
[MUSIC: Pan American "Tract" from ‘Pan-American’ (Kranky - 1997)]
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth