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Japan Emergency Raises Concerns About Nuclear Power

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Japan Emergency Raises Concerns About Nuclear Power

Japan Emergency Raises Concerns About Nuclear Power

Japan Emergency Raises Concerns About Nuclear Power

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Japan is still struggling to avert a catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear plant in the country's northeast. Officials and safety workers are trying to prevent a full meltdown of some of the plant's reactors, after Friday's devastating earthquake damaged the facility. Radiation levels have shot up around the plant and the government has evacuated tens of thousands of people within a 12-mile radius. To discuss the implications of this emergency for the production of nuclear power in the United States and globally, host Michel Martin speaks with Hazel O'Leary, former U.S Secretary of Energy and now president of Tennessee's Fisk University.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, it's that time again - tax time. The deadline to file is just about a month away. We'll have some advice on getting ready to face the taxman from our regular money coach, Alvin Hall. That's coming up in just a few minutes.

But first, we return to that major story out of Japan, which was rocked by the largest earthquake in its history, combined with a tsunami that brought waves towering to about 30 feet. And then came the other crisis. Three blasts in two days at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

It's a complex of six reactors located about 150 miles north of Tokyo. About half a million people have been displaced by fears about radiation exposure along Japan's northeastern coast. Japanese officials are now asking the United States for more equipment to help cool the stricken reactors.

We wanted to talk about the lessons Americans could take away from all this. So we've called upon the former U.S. secretary of energy, Hazel O'Leary. Before taking that post, she had served variously as an advocate for energy consumers, an energy consultant and as a utility company executive. And as such, she has a deep background in all regulated energy industries. She also happens to be the first and only African-American and the first and only woman to hold the position of energy secretary.

She's now president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. And she's with us now from her office there. Welcome, madam president, thank you so much for taking the time.

Ms. HAZEL O'LEARY (President, Fisk University): Well, I'm pleased to speak with you, Michel.

MARTIN: May I ask, given your background, when you heard about the situation in Japan, what went through your mind?

Ms. O'LEARY: Well, the first thing I thought back to was a day in March years ago when I was a mere assistant secretary at the Department of Energy. And I was actually doing a morning TV show when the accident at Three Mile Island was announced. And of course immediately I was asked to talk about that. And gee whiz, I must have barely been in my 40s then. Maybe I was 37 or so.

So, and then, of course, we all go fast forward to Chernobyl. And someone like me and most of your listening public would recall that Chernobyl was a reactor without containment, which is not the case at Three Mile Island and there is containment at these six plants in Japan. So those were the things I thought about.

You know, the public reaction can be as balanced or as unbalanced as the people who talk about the crisis. And so, what I promised myself is to try and be very level-headed and fact based when we have our discussion.

MARTIN: As energy secretary, though, you were known as one of the first champions of alternative energy sources. And for your concern about reliance on fossil fuels, you were, for example, interested in promoting, you know, wind energy and so forth. How does nuclear energy fit into that?

As you, you know, as you mentioned, after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979, there's been a sort of deep skepticism about nuclear energy in the U.S. Only one new plant has gotten permission to operate in the years since then. In the past 15 years, only one nuclear power plant has begun U.S. commercial operations in the past.

Ms. O'LEARY: Exactly. And I think the point to be made here is it's not so much the regulators who stood in the way, but it was the financiers. The difficulty with building a nuclear power plant is it's very expensive and all of our energy sources bring with them some risk. And our experience in history tells us that when we have a nuclear accident, it gets our attention. And those of us who are old enough to recall when atomic weapons were still used, there are lots of things to think through.

I want to say that in all of the years that I have been on the cutting edge and sometimes behind the curve on energy production and development, it's always been clear to me that diversity of supply is an ultimate goal.

However, I'm not one of those avid advocates for building large numbers of nuclear power plants in the United States until we solve the problem of storage of spent nuclear material for the civilian reactors and also for the military.

And so, in that regard, when I talk about diversity, I have a however. However, let us ultimately, after now almost 40 years of trying to solve our storage problem and now abandoning a site in Nevada, it's very hard for me to look carefully and respectfully at a plan to build 200 more nuclear power plants when we have no place to store the waste.

MARTIN: You feel that the waste problem still has not been addressed adequately?

Ms. O'LEARY: Well, it has not been addressed. It has not been solved. This administration has stopped all work on Yucca Mountain. And that was the only repository the United States had in development for storage of high level nuclear waste. The alternative proposed now is to go to some technological fixes, but that technology is yet to be fully developed or proven out. So this is a major concern as we go forward.

MARTIN: This administration, still, though, is of the view that nuclear energy has a role in the country's energy future because of the need and desire to explore alternatives to fossil fuels. Tell me your perspective on that. Is it your view that it still needs to be discussed or that you can't talk about it without talking about the options for storing nuclear waste?

Ms. O'LEARY: Well, I, yeah, I believe that the deepest respect for this president and his team, that they've taken a great leap of faith to do what we all say we want to do, which is to support diverse sources of energy supply and in this case, of electricity. But without solving that storage problem, it's a hollow discussion. And, you know, finally, to have pulled out of Yucca flats with no other repository in sight, to me is just - we didn't analyze the entire problem from inception to back end of nuclear energy production. And I think it's an error.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Hazel O'Leary. She has served as secretary of energy during the Clinton administration. Before taking that post, she was an energy consultant, a consumer advocate, an advocate for energy consumers and a utility company executive. She also happened to be the first and only African-American and the first and only woman to hold the position of energy secretary. She's now the president of Fisk University in Nashville, where we reached her.

So, madam president, tell me how you think going forward, I mean, obviously we don't know all the details of what's happening in Japan at this moment. They are obviously trying to keep the reactors, the damaged reactors cooled. You know, three of those reactors there were shut down at the time of the explosion, which was very different, of course, from Chernobyl, where all the reactors were operating at, you know, at full capacity at the time of the explosion.

Apparently there hasn't been the most serious or dangerous scenario has not occurred. But is there something that we should be thinking about as we look at this disaster? For example, the whole question of whether nuclear reactors even belong in coastal areas at all.

Ms. O'LEARY: I think all of these issues have to be reexamined and I was very interested this morning at six o'clock to be going on my iPad to take a look at what was being said in various regions of the country about this crisis in Japan.

And as always, with energy, our point of view tends to be tied to our energy -our local or regional or state energy source. And so, the discussion really plays to what each region, each city, each state depends on as its major nuclear energy source.

But indeed, I mean, what we always do with citing any plant, any energy plant, any electrical power plant is to try to look at the risks and in the plan for development, mitigate the risks. And what we've learned in watching the crisis in Japan unfold is that often we don't understand the risk well enough to plan for it. That's certainly been the case in Japan.

And so I think it brings into question as the nation goes forward with all of its energy development, which I've said before and need to say again, all bring risk. You know, the nation's attention, the globe's attention was called to the miners in Chile, the miners in West Virginia. Wherever there is an energy resource being developed or extracted, there are risks and we always think we've mitigated against them. And sometimes that is not the case.

Sometimes you've made a mistake because we haven't spent enough money to mitigate. And sometimes people make the economic decision that to bear some risk to keep cost down, I think we need to look at all of those formulas and we certainly need to do that going forward.

MARTIN: I just want to amplify a point that you made earlier, a large contingent of House Republicans is, in fact, trying to revive Yucca Mountain as the site for the nation's nuclear waste depository as part of a broader plan to call for building 200 new nuclear plants by the year 2030, which is what you were talking about. Currently, the country only gets about 20 percent of its electricity from 104 nuclear reactors.

And, finally, madam president, given that, like, say, you were an early person to talk about alternative energy sources, what are some of the things that you think are perhaps more viable to be considered in the United States?

Ms. O'LEARY: Well, the reality is that until we in the United States decide we want to pay a premium for cleaner energy, I doubt we're going to get a lot of market penetration. But, of course, I was an early proponent of wind, photovoltaics and almost any of the OTEC and underground extraction methodologies that bring with them less risk, which of course is what's captured our attention today.

MARTIN: What is the energy source at Fisk, by the way?

Ms. O'LEARY: Oh, my God. We're as bad as bad can be. I live in coal country. That's what Tennessee is. We take from TVA through our local co-op, which is Nashville energy. And so, what we are attempting to do and are in discussions now with a number of developers is move to some alternatives. And we have invested most of our money in retrofitting these extravagantly beautiful and expensive-to-run, nearly century-old buildings that place our campus on the national site - on the national register for historic sites.

MARTIN: I see.

Ms. O'LEARY: Our challenge is deep and our pocketbook needs to be deeper in order to move to the energy sources which will be less polluting. And so that's the dilemma.

MARTIN: That's the dilemma and the challenge.

Ms. O'LEARY: If you have the money, then you can move to renewables. But if you don't, you have to take it slowly and retrofit and, you know, use your thermostatic controls.

MARTIN: I see.

Ms. O'LEARY: You know, I'm the little old woman who complains when I see the lights on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: All right. Madam secretary, thank you so much for joining us. Hazel O'Leary served as the secretary of energy in the first term of the Clinton administration. She's now the president of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. And she was kind enough to join us from her offices there. Madam president, thank you.

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