Assessing The Future Of Nuclear Power In The U.S.
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.
While millions in Japan spend another cold night without power, food or running water, many thousands are trying to evacuate the area around a nuclear power complex that's emitting radiation after a series of explosions and a fire.
Four of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex are in some level of crisis. We'll get an update in just a moment.
Later in the program, how what's happened in Japan affects the debate on the future of nuclear power in this country and around the world. China plans to move ahead. Stress tests have been ordered on all plants in Europe. And Germany decided to shut down one aging reactor and put a decision to extend the life of 16 others on hold.
Given what's happened in Japan, have you changed your mind about nuclear power? Calls later. You can send us email now. The address is email@example.com. But first, NPR science correspondent Jon Hamilton joins us here in Studio 3A.
Jon, nice to have you with us.
JON HAMILTON: Glad to be here.
CONAN: And we understand there was a spike in radiation emitted at the Fukushima plant earlier today, but that's since subsided.
HAMILTON: That is what we're hearing is there was a spike, and it was actually a fairly scary one. It went up to a level they referred to as 400 millisieverts, which is a lot of radiation. It's enough radiation that if it were to go on for several hours, and you were right there, you could become sick.
But I should say that the spike was just that. It was one point in time at one place. It has since gone down since then. And it was not sustained. So it suggests that whatever was causing that radiation to be released has been taken care of.
CONAN: And was that - could that have been the fire that was reported at one of the three plants that had been shut down before these - before the earthquake for maintenance?
HAMILTON: It certainly could be related to the fire. The fire we're talking about was in reactor number four at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and that's, interestingly enough, a reactor that was not in operation. However, even the reactors that are not in operation, they have these pools where they store the spent fuel.
And it appears that what happened was that the cooling system that has to cool down this spent fuel because it still has a lot of heat to give off, that somehow failed. Perhaps the water level dropped and exposed the radioactive material to the atmosphere, which would account for - certainly for a radiation spike. And it also would've allowed the production of a huge amount of heat, which could have started the fire, and there you have it.
CONAN: And there you have it. So the other three plants, though, that were online and were reported in crisis, well, I guess ever since the earthquake and tsunami, what's the situation there?
HAMILTON: Well, what I'm hearing is that people are pretty reassured right now - and I should say right now - about numbers one and three. Number one reactor was the one that we first did so much reporting on because they were having terrible problems keeping the core cool enough, that it wasn't going to create terrible problems and have perhaps even a meltdown. Number three went through a similar thing.
Today, the focus has been on number two, where there was an explosion, maybe more than one explosion, but what happened was there had been explosions at two of the other reactors, but these were outside of the reactor's so-called containment vessel. It was a hydrogen explosion in the building, and it did a lot of damage to the building but not to the reactor and its containment structure itself.
This explosion in number two was in a part of the containment system, not the vessel per se, but in a part of the containment system, and the concern there is that an explosion there could possibly have opened up a hole where radioactive material could escape out into the environment.
CONAN: It could, might. How do we know for sure?
HAMILTON: We don't. And I should say with everything to do with the situation in Japan, the information has been really sparse. And you - when you read things from different sources, they all have different takes on exactly what has happened.
And the government officials seem to be doing updates, you know, more or less once a day, and that information seems to be pretty good, but it's not coming out very often.
CONAN: And so we've heard that, for example, United States Navy vessels that had been off the east coast of Japan were going to be moved to the west coast. The prevailing winds are blowing the material to the east, and this is seen as a way to get out of the path of any radiation that might escape. And is this a wise precaution at this point?
HAMILTON: It's hard to say. I don't know what the levels they're experiencing are. You would think that for a Navy vessel to decide to move, it would have taken a reading it considered disturbing.
But my understanding, you talk about information flow, my understanding is people have gotten that from, you know, the Facebook page of somebody on this ship.
So it does suggest that there are levels of concern that are miles from the plant. However, just to address something else that's come up, people have talked about higher radiation levels in Tokyo, say, which is 150-plus miles away. And yes, that's true but a tiny, tiny increase and nothing that you would think would cause any kind of health problem.
CONAN: The prevailing wind does blow from the east to the west so - excuse me, away from Japan, toward the Pacific. Does that represent any kind of a threat to anybody downwind?
HAMILTON: Well, if you had a major release of radiation - so far there have been releases - it appears most of the releases have been when they vent steam because pressure's building up in one of these vessels. That stem has some radioactive material in it. It's somewhat radioactive. And so you get a temporary spike with each of these releases.
We have not had the kind of sustained release or the event like in Chernobyl, where there was an enormous explosion that put a huge amount of radioactive material way up into the air, where the winds could carry it. We haven't - we have not seen that in Japan.
CONAN: And is there any fear that we could yet see something like that or a meltdown?
HAMILTON: The people I have talked to - meltdown is a real possibility. There's been talk from government officials already that they are - they suspect or maybe even presume that there's been what they call a partial meltdown in at least two of these reactors.
And these reactors, on the inside, there's a huge steel, stainless steel chamber, and you have these fuel rods that have uranium in this case in them. And when they - they don't have to all melt, right. You can have a little bit of them melt, and that can do bad things.
If they all melt, you can end up with the whole mess in a big puddle of radioactive glop on the floor of this thing, and that's not good at all. But that hasn't happened.
CONAN: And we have no fear that it will?
HAMILTON: It is - the people I have talked to say explosion not so likely. The things that led to the explosion in Chernobyl were...
CONAN: A different design of plant.
HAMILTON: A design that would never be built in the U.S. or Japan. There was no containment structure at all. And also, that reactor was running out of control. The nuclear reaction was going full-tilt when it went. So the amount of heat that produced created a big explosion and a subsequent really intense fire, which is why all the problem.
Nobody seems to think that's a possibility. The type of hydrogen explosions we have, and even the fire they had, not in the same order of magnitude. However, a meltdown is something people do think might happen.
And in that case, what happens is that the core is - if the cooling is insufficient, if you can't keep water flowing around it, it gets hotter and hotter, and eventually not only does the steel start to melt but so do - so does the cladding around these fuel rods. The nuclear material itself will eventually melt.
And all this stuff ends up in this kind of molten stuff that follows gravity, and, you know, we all remember "The China Syndrome," right. Things can burn their way down. It could burn its way out of the core. It could burn its way -then it would be inside the containment vessel.
The worst-case scenario I heard described by anybody was that yes, it's possible that if that happened in the right circumstances, it could even burn its way out, you know, through the floor of the containment vessel.
That is still not like Chernobyl because that's going into the ground. It's causing problems with groundwater and plants and things like that. It's not putting it up in the air, where hundreds of thousands of people are going to be exposed.
CONAN: And we're - we actually know a fair amount about this particular design of reactor because it was designed by General Electric.
HAMILTON: Indeed it was. I believe it's known as the General Electric Mark 1 boiler.
CONAN: And these - nuclear power makes up about 25 percent of Japan's electrical-generating capacity.
HAMILTON: Twenty-five, 30 percent, I think in that range, yes.
CONAN: And these six plants comprise how much of that?
HAMILTON: My understanding is there are about 55 reactors all together. So you're talking about a relatively small - I mean, remember that we're talking about Fukushima One, Fukushima Daiichi, right, which is, right now, six different reactors with two more being built, right.
So only three of those were actually even running when the earthquake hit. The others were down for refurbishment or maintenance or something. So you're talking about losing three reactors. And, by the way, since they're, you know, pumping saltwater into these reactors, they probably are toast, right.
CONAN: They're not coming back.
HAMILTON: They are not coming back. So you're talking about three. It's significant, but it's not as if the majority of the nuclear power in Japan is about to disappear because of this incident.
CONAN: And there are all kinds of safeguards, given the possibilities of earthquakes in a place like Japan, that nuclear power plants are supposed to shut down automatically. And yes, they did that at Fukushima Daiichi, but other things subsequently went wrong. What's going on with the other nuclear power plants? Are they all offline, or are they back online and producing power?
HAMILTON: I don't have a lot of details there. My understanding is that they're trying right now to bring - they need this power, right. You have terrible power problems in Tokyo. We're talking about rolling blackouts and stuff like this.
So my understanding is that the nation is trying to bring the ones that they think are safe, the ones that were not damaged by the tsunami or something, bring those back online. I do not know how many are online at the moment.
CONAN: And getting back to the area right around the nuclear power plants at Fukushima, the people have been told, well, there's a big evacuation, I guess, within what...
HAMILTON: I think we're...
CONAN: Eleven kilometers, and then...
HAMILTON: Twelve miles, 20 kilometers, and then there is an area of 30 kilometers, where they're asking people to stay inside to - in the event that there's some radiation coming down. They can be protected.
CONAN: But there have to be some people still at the plant fighting to contain this situation. What kind of dangers are they in?
HAMILTON: It's likely that they're in a lot of danger. You know, this is really two stories. On the one hand, the danger to the public at this point, if you're in Tokyo or miles from this plant, the danger to you is really at this point not at all great.
I mean, that could change. But if - for these workers who are at the plant, some of them apparently have already gotten radiation sickness. Some of them may be gravely ill as a result of this.
The radiation levels right around the plant have been high enough to be truly frightening, and in fact, they have removed - I understand there were about 800 workers. They're now down to a skeleton crew of about 50, and the reason is this spike in radiation you saw, which could, in fact, be really dangerous to these workers.
CONAN: NPR science desk correspondent Jon Hamilton, with us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for your time today.
HAMILTON: My pleasure.
CONAN: We're going to continue to watch the situation at those nuclear plants and the rescue operations in the northern part of Japan. Stay with NPR News for the latest.
Up next, the ongoing crisis in Japan has reshaped the debate over nuclear power in this country. We'll talk about what that might mean for the future of nuclear energy. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
It's now very early in the morning in Japan, a fifth day of freezing temperatures, no power, little food or clean water for millions of Japanese. Dangerous levels of radiation leaked from a damaged nuclear power plant in recent hours. Four reactors are now in crisis after a number of explosions and a fire at the Fukushima power plant in the northeastern part of the country.
The government imposed a no-fly zone over that area, and the U.S. Navy issued anti-radiation pills to some American sailors who may have been exposed to the radiation. We'll continue to monitor the news out of Japan and bring you updates as they come in.
In the meantime, the partial meltdowns in a number of reactors in Japan have reignited debate over the future of nuclear power in this and other countries.
Given what's happened in Japan, have you changed your mind? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Obama administration thus far is standing firm in its support of nuclear power. The president's latest budget, released last month, calls for $36 billion for nuclear power plant construction.
In a news conference on Friday after the earthquake, President Obama said that by 2035 the United States would get 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy, wind and solar and home-grown biofuels, along with natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power.
Yesterday administration officials in a briefing at the White House dismissed calls for a freeze on nuclear power.
Joining us now is Rebecca Smith, who covers nuclear energy for the Wall Street Journal. She's at a studio in San Francisco. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION with us.
Ms. REBECCA SMITH (Wall Street Journal): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And we spoke to you last March. At that point, President Obama had recently announced that multi-billion-dollar loan guarantee for construction of two new reactors in Georgia. How are these events in Japan changing the debate?
Ms. SMITH: Well, I think it's a little early to say. But if - there are almost two dozen reactors operating in the U.S. right now that are of similar vintage and design as the ones that have failed in Japan. So there's doubtless going to be more scrutiny on our older our oldest reactors, and also on the re-licensing of those reactors, which has been going on for some time now.
Of those two dozen reactors, I believe 18 have received 20-year license extensions. So there may be more focus on that process.
CONAN: Interesting, license extensions. That was the issue in Germany, which had decided to extend the life of its 17 reactors, seven of them older power generators. And, well, suddenly that decision is on hold. One of those oldest ones is now going to be put, going to be shut down.
Ms. SMITH: Right, and you know, there are a number of issues with these older reactors. And I'd like to clarify a couple things. It was said earlier that these were Mark One reactors. That's not quite right.
They're General Electric Model Three and Four boiling-water reactors, built between the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mark One refers to the containment structure, which is supposed to provide a protective barrier and keep radiation from being released.
The problem in this case is that you had such massive failures inside the reactor core that they have had to release steam to relieve pressure from that reactor. It's gone through the containment building, which normally would be kept tight, and it's been released to the atmosphere.
So one of the things that's going to have to be looked at is this Mark One containment, which is one of the weakest ones that's still in existence anywhere, quite obviously because it's the oldest.
I mean, this was an early design. The later versions were much more robust and much bigger. So there's going to have to be a new look taken at that.
CONAN: Are there similar models here in the United States?
Ms. SMITH: As I said, there are around two dozen, and it includes - these are plants that are among our oldest, and they're operated by the biggest names in the business. I'm talking Exelon, Entergy, Constellation, Southern Company. I can't remember if I said Entergy, but these are the large operators, and they're in roughly a dozen states. So there's going to be a lot of public worry about these units, I suspect.
CONAN: Yesterday Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, a ranking member in the House Natural Resources Committee, called for a moratorium on permits for U.S. reactors.
Senator Joe Lieberman, who's been an advocate of nuclear power, called for a temporary halt to licensing of new plants.
Ms. SMITH: Well, one of the ironies of this, of course, is that we've had a problem, is with these little old units that have failed in Japan. What's being licensed today is completely different from these old plants. I mean we have half a century of nuclear experience now.
And the new units have many more safety systems in them. They call them passive systems. And the idea is that you use natural forces like the flow of water from gravity to keep a reactor cool. So I think the new designs are inherently safer, but there's now the possibility that they may never get built in the U.S. because of fears from these old ones.
CONAN: And the fears of what are obviously very rare but very vivid events. I think anybody alive remembers Three Mile Island. More people certainly remember Chernobyl, and these events in Japan. But those are very, very rare.
Ms. SMITH: They are very rare, and of course the comparisons to Chernobyl, which was a graphite plant, as was pointed out earlier, a sort that would never have been built in any other country, really, but Russia, that explosion couldn't happen here.
Nevertheless, we fear radiation. I mean, at its simplest one could say that using radiation as a means of creating steam to make electricity is a high-risk operation. And we have believed until now that we had enough redundant safety systems in these nuclear plants to provide and assure public safety.
This accident now, where for the first time we've had multiple reactors fail, really calls into question the premise of redundancy.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Given what's happened in Japan, have you changed your mind on nuclear power? And we'll start with Darius(ph), Darius with us from Tampa.
DARIUS (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. Even though the accident happened, I'm totally for nuclear power. You know, our sun is a huge nuclear reactor. We wouldn't be alive without it. So yeah, it's dangerous, but you know, life is filled with risk.
CONAN: Life is filled with risk. So if they wanted to build one in Tampa, you'd be fine with that?
DARIUS: I'd be fine with it, yes.
CONAN: All right, Darius. Thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. And the so-called NIMBY problem, Rebecca Smith, that's an eternal one in the construction of nuclear power plants.
Ms. SMITH: Well, it certainly is, and you know, the licensing process is a long and thorough one. But we're going to have to go back now, I think, and look at what the seismic standards have been and certainly what the assumptions have been about tsunami.
In California we have two power plants on fault lines on the Pacific Ocean. I have personally been to the San Onofre plant, and I can tell you there's a very small seawall that separates that power plant and the ocean.
You know, there are many, many things that are going to be looked at, but the one thing you can be assured of is that the nuclear industry is thorough, and they will go through this with second-by-second analysis of what went wrong.
CONAN: The small seawall in front of that plant, obviously not much of a protection in case of a major tsunami.
Ms. SMITH: I wouldn't think so.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the line. Let's go to -this is Patrick, Patrick with us from Corvallis in Oregon.
PATRICK (Caller): Hello, Neal. Thank you very much for taking my call.
PATRICK: I'm actually a nuclear engineering student at Oregon State University. The point I wanted to make is that we really can't design any major industrial facility that can withstand natural disasters of this magnitude.
Whether this was a chemical plant or an oil refinery or a natural gas plant, it would've been very difficult to build something that would not have caused a huge issue after this disaster, whether it was a fire, a release of chemicals, or anything else, really.
CONAN: So the scale of the disaster is what concerns you?
PATRICK: Yeah, it concerns me that we - any large industrial facility would have been - would have caused a large environmental catastrophe at this point, whether it was a release of radiation or an uncovered core or whether it was the release of a large amount of carcinogens.
CONAN: It's interesting, Rebecca Smith. We heard the chairman of the NRC say American plants are designed to withstand significant events, significant events, including tornadoes and earthquakes and that sort of thing - 9.0, that significant?
Ms. SMITH: Well, it's massive, but - and I don't exactly agree with the caller. I would say we can design around any threat. The problem with the power industry is these are privately owned power plants. That is, they're owned by utilities.
And they have to be able to pass a cost-benefit analysis. No one's going to build a nuclear plant if they have to build it for a 9.0 or a 10.0 Richter earthquake. It simply would become astronomically expensive.
So it may be economics that is the greatest threat right now, due to engineering, increased engineering standards, that is the threat to the industry.
I mean, you have to be able to make power and sell it at an affordable price.
CONAN: Patrick, thanks very much.
PATRICK: Yeah, thank you very much.
CONAN: Here's an email from Kevin in Baltimore: With all of the safe, clean options for power today, why take the chance with nuclear? What's the worst that could happen if a windmill or a solar panel fails?
Also, why provide targets - nuclear power plants - for terrorists? Think about it for a minute. And do you want to store the nuclear waste in your background? Germany supposedly gets 15 to 20 percent of their energy from solar.
And there's a couple of questions in there. Is there enough wind or solar -potential for wind and solar power to make up what nuclear provides and more?
Ms. SMITH: You know, well, California has one of the loftiest goals. It wants to get 30 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. And you know, it's making headway in that direction.
But again, the point needs to be made that nuclear energy has to compete with these other sources of power, or it's not going to stay in the mix. And right now, we have extraordinarily cheap natural gas. It's much easier to throw up a natural gas plant and burn cheap gas than it is to build a nuclear plant, even before we've gone through what will now be a new even greater analysis of what the construction standards have to be.
CONAN: Well, lately, we've been hearing a lot of the dangers of so-called fracking, the hydraulic fracturing, which is involved in extracting that natural gas. Obviously, coal plants, well, they generate a lot of waste products, and oil and gas eliminates - put some carbon in the atmosphere, too. Nuclear power plant accidents are very rare. Are the dangers from all of these other sources, well, they're dispersed over a wide area, but they're significant, too?
Ms. SMITH: I don't think anything is as significant as a nuclear accident, though. I mean, that's really off the scales, if you get a major radioactive release. It is true that every source of energy has its cost and has its environmental damage that is created, but we're talking a whole different level when we talk radioactivity.
I mean, the half-life on these isotopes is enormous, and look at Chernobyl, there's still a massive dead zone around that plant. Even though we're not talking that kind of accident in Japan at this point and probably couldn't be because the fuel is different, there's still a threat to society that is different with nuclear energy than any other form of energy.
CONAN: Let's go to Alex. Alex with us from Baton Rouge.
ALEX (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
ALEX: Good. I'm in the U.S. Navy. I've worked on a submarine with these reactors, and I got to say if you look at the Navy's history, we've never had an incident. I think the entire thing is about training and preparation for these things.
Of course, the catastrophe of this magnitude maybe it wasn't foreseen, maybe it wasn't prevented - preventable, but in a normal environment, nuclear energy is one of the safest ways we can go, as well as the most affordable, if we look at it in the long run. I totally support it, and I would have a reactor in my backyard any day of the week.
CONAN: Those are pressurized water reactors in nuclear submarines. And is Alex right, that there's never been an accident with one of those?
Ms. SMITH: Oh, I think the U.S. Navy has a very exemplary record in terms of reactor safety. These are tiny units compared with what we're talking about with commercial reactors. As you pointed out, they're pressurized water reactors, not boiling water, so there's some differences in design. One other thing has been - I've been told many times, is that the Navy gold-plates its reactors, and that the commercial reactors are not built with specifications as high as what the U.S. Navy demands.
CONAN: Alex, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
ALEX: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking about the renewed debate over nuclear power given the events in Japan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go next to Dave, and Dave is with us from Buffalo.
DAVE (Caller): Hello, folks. Very important subject. Can you hear me?
CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead.
DAVE: Okay. I'm an engineer, and I've heard that nuclear power plants are not efficient. They create a lot of excess heat that are - dispersed into the environment, either into the air, through these large cooling towers or into the water. So our main concern here is global warming. So if the CO2 through sunlight or if it's nuclear power, you're putting a lot of heat into the atmosphere or into the water. So I wondered about that. That's all.
CONAN: Is the extent of the excess heat developed by nuclear power plants a significant contributor towards global warming?
DAVE: Yes. Compared to other plants, which aren't so - are more efficient.
CONAN: All right. What do you think, Rebecca Smith?
Ms. SMITH: I think we're talking apples and oranges. The problem - the concern with global warming is the release of carbon dioxide, okay? That's a byproduct of burning a fossil fuel like coal or natural gas. A nuclear plant, because it's using fissionable material, does not produce CO2.
Ms. SMITH: It's not burning a fossil fuel. So the heat it produces is thermal heat...
Ms. SMITH: ...and that is passed along either into the air or usually into a body of water nearby in the form of hot water.
Ms. SMITH: So it's a completely different thing. I don't think - I mean, the -one of the advantages of nuclear energy is that it does not produce large amounts of carbon dioxide.
DAVE: But it produces a large amount of heat...
Ms. SMITH: So it should reduce the risk...
DAVE: ...so that's the concern I have.
Ms. SMITH: It's - yeah. It's thermal heat, but, like I say, it's a different -it's not heating up the atmosphere of the Earth. It's heating up bodies of water nearby, and normally, you'd - I mean, this is why they're controlled -this is - excuse me, this is why we build plants on lakes and oceans. It's because they use that water for cooling purposes.
DAVE: Right. Well, that only shows heat, so that's my concern.
CONAN: All right. I think it's what she's saying is insignificant in terms of global warming. So thanks very much for the call, Dave.
DAVE: You're welcome.
CONAN: Here's an email from Tate, who writes: I understand the discussion about safety and preparedness of nuclear reactors is important. I wonder if a little perspective is missing. Reactors should be prepared for earthquakes, but when the force of the quake pushes an entire country 10 feet to the left and wipes away entire towns with tsunamis, I feel like we're blaming dinosaurs for not expecting the meteor. In other words, are we talking about events that are so rare that, really, we can't design or shouldn't bother to design for them?
Ms. SMITH: I think - I mean, to me, it's back to the cost benefit. You can design for anything, but do you want to pay for it? And at some point, the cost becomes so prohibitive that a person would not build a nuclear plant. You'd build something else, or you would try to find ways to make society more energy efficient so that we don't need as much energy to begin with.
CONAN: When is the next decision in this country, on the future of nuclear power? Are those plants in Georgia going to go ahead?
Ms. SMITH: Plants Vogtle? Those are the ones you're referring to. They're preparing the site, right now, for construction. They're - in other words, they're moving tons and tons of dirt around and getting things ready. They hope to have a license to begin actual construction by the end of this year. It would take three to five years to build new reactors there. Things are still going forward.
And, again, the design that they're building there is called a Westinghouse AP1000. It is a passive design. It's light years different from the ones that are failing in Japan right now. They have federal loan guarantees. I don't know of anything right now that would obstruct that.
Southern is one of the better nuclear operators, globally. And I'm sure they and everyone else will be trying to learn as much as they can about what happened in Japan. They do have, by the way, a couple of these little units that are like the ones in Japan. They're probably much more worried about those right now than they would be about the new Vogtle units that are planned.
CONAN: Rebecca Smith, thanks very much for your time.
Ms. SMITH: Thank you.
CONAN: Rebecca Smith covers nuclear energy for The Wall Street Journal and joined us from a studio in San Francisco.
Japanese officials continue to pump seawater into nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The government has told people to remain calm and ordered more than 100,000 residents near the plant to seal themselves indoors as radiation levels spiked and then subsided.
We'll continue to monitor events in Japan, and when we come back, two views on the future of nuclear energy in this country. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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Right now, we're talking about the renewed debate over nuclear power given what's happened in Japan. Have you changed your mind? Give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a moment, Jim Riccio, the nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace USA. But we begin with Gwyneth Cravens, once an opponent of nuclear energy in the 1980s. She petitioned to shut down the Shoreham plant on Long Island in New York. Then, she changed sides.
In 2008, after years of research, she wrote a book called "Power To Save The World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy." And Gwyneth Cravens joins us now from member station KAZU in Seaside, California.
And it's nice to have you with us today.
Ms. GWYNETH CRAVENS (Author, "Power To Save The World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy"): Thanks for having me on.
CONAN: And what changed your mind?
Ms. CRAVENS: Well, a whole lot of little things, really, that - mainly, I thought I knew something about nuclear power and had learned about it in high school and so on, grew up in Albuquerque, which is a - New Mexico is like a pro - you know, not a sort of nuclear bomb place.
But in a chance conversation with a scientist friend, I didn't know what he did, actually at - he worked at Sandia National Labs. And I made some remark about nuclear power, and he just gently informed me that I was wrong. And thus began - that's the way a long dialogue began. And I learned many surprising things, which I did not believe, so I would go home and - you know, I'd visit Albuquerque and talk to him, then I go back home to my place in Long Island and Manhattan and research.
And I would find that he - you know what? He was right. That there are certain laws of physics that I didn't know about and so on. And so, over time, I changed my mind, and one of the big mind changers, for me, as it was for Stewart Brand, is catastrophic global warming and ocean acidification caused by burning hydrocarbons. We have to stop doing that, and the only large-scale way to replace those hydrocarbons is nuclear power...
Ms. CRAVENS: ...because it supplies base load.
CONAN: And I wonder, is what's happening now in Japan, is that making you rethink?
Ms. CRAVENS: No. The - it's important to know that the reactors function correctly. They were designed to withstand an earthquake, and they did. They automatically shut down, which all of our American reactors are programmed to do also. As soon as the first jolt appeared, they shut down. The control rods were inserted into the core and stopped the chain reaction.
So what we're dealing with now - or what they're dealing with, rather, is decay heat that's left over from the chain reaction.
The tsunami was the problem. The earthquake would not have caused the problems they're dealing with now. But their backup systems of electricity failed, and so they couldn't pump water into the reactor and so on. So it was a problem of the tsunami, not the design of the reactors.
Since - but, as Rebecca Smith points out, since those reactors were built, there are a lot of new features in the reactors we have in the United States. For example, gravity-feed water tanks that don't require electricity. You can -if you don't have electricity and your backup systems fail, you can turn a valve and keep the reactor and the spent fuel...
Ms. CRAVENS: ...underwater - cool, yeah.
CONAN: Okay. Well, let's turn to another voice. Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace USA with us here in Studio 3-A.
Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. JIM RICCIO (Nuclear Policy Analyst, Greenpeace USA): Thank you. It's my pleasure.
CONAN: And President Obama and many others say just what we heard from Gwyneth Cravens, we need to worry about global warming generated by carbon-emitting plants. Nuclear energy is clean, and it's safe.
Mr. RICCIO: Well, I think what's going on in Japan right now proves that it's not safe. And just because radiation is invisible, it doesn't mean it's clean. The people in Japan aren't going to see the radiation that may affect them, but they're still at risk from it.
President Obama did say yesterday that, you know, the events of the day weren't going to change his mind. We would hope that once the full impact of this tragedy is in full view, that he will reconsider.
It's not just groups like Greenpeace that are opposed to building new reactors and basically building them on the backs of the American taxpayer. Just last week, you had the head of Exelon, the largest nuclear fleet in the nation, was speaking to the American Enterprise Institute and said he doesn't believe nuclear loan guarantees are good, either. Even groups that are pro-nuclear, like Heritage Foundation, are saying, you know, we're pro-nuclear, but we're anti-nuclear loans because we don't want...
CONAN: Well, that's a small element of it. We were talking about the safety here.
Mr. RICCIO: Right. Indeed. And the fact is, you couldn't design a reactor that could withstand...
CONAN: I want you to stay small element. It's another element of it. But...
Mr. RICCIO: Right. You couldn't withstand - no reactors could withstand the tragedy that we just experienced in Japan. And our concerns right now are with the people of Japan. And, you know, we hope that their tragedy is not exacerbated now by pouring radioactivity over the top of them.
From what I've known just recently, you've had at least two partial core meltdowns. You thoroughly uncovered the core in the unit two reactor. And the spent fuel pool in the unit four reactor was burning this morning, and now is boiling. While, you know, the meltdown - the partial meltdowns are of a concern, you have 20 years worth of nuclear waste sitting in that spent fuel pool, that if it catch - if the pool is drained, that fuel will catch fire and be spewed out even more. So, you know, we're nowhere near the end of this disaster.
CONAN: And we - the radiation levels did, subsequently, go back down in Japan. So then...
Mr. RICCIO: Well, when you're blown the doors of the side of the reactor building, yeah, the radiation levels would tend to drop because they're being dispersed by the wind. I'm told that they're picking up radiation as far as 100 kilometers, by some of our ships at sea. We have a major nuclear event going on in Japan, and it's far too early to claim that things are under control.
CONAN: Well, again, these are older designs. The newer designs being proposed are much safer.
Mr. RICCIO: You don't know that. These were claimed to be the same - actually, the AP1000 that you were talking about building down in Vogtle, there are concerns right now about how well the containment will work. And there are petitions before the government about just that. The fact is that, you know, nuclear power is an inherently dangerous technology. And when things go bad, they tend to go very bad.
CONAN: And let me turn back to Gwyneth Cravens on exactly that point. When things go bad, it's very rare. But when things go bad, well, you have spectacular and drastic and tragic accidents.
Ms. CRAVENS: Well, there was a big accident at Chernobyl, which cannot be compared to what's going on in Japan. It was - the Chernobyl reactor had no containment. The death toll from that so far is 60 people. There's an estimated - they estimate that about 4,000 people might develop thyroid cancer from exposure to radioactive iodine. It was a very bad accident.
But I would just like to remind people that over 10,000 people a year die in the United States alone from fine particulates from coal-fired plants, which, incidentally, spew out more - it's a low-dose radioactive material, but burning coal concentrates uranium and radon - radium, and so on. And so in the coal ash, the waste which lies around in unlined pits, there's enough in the coal ash of one big coal-fired plant to make about six atomic bombs, uranium 235.
So the - and the stuff coming out of the stacks looks - you know, you don't see the soot anymore so much, but you see - or you don't - what you don't see are these invisible gases, sulfur and nitrogen gases which turn into fine particulates when they're combined with water vapor and get into the airways of our lungs and kill people with lung cancer and heart disease.
So this is an ongoing catastrophe, along with ocean acidification. As the ocean takes up more carbon dioxide, the water becomes more acidic. This is beginning to affect shelled organisms like corals. They can't make the calcium carbonate shells in the acidic waters. And so - and about three million people a year die from fossil fuel combustion pollution worldwide.
We have to think about how to provide base-load electricity - that is 24/7, around-the-clock electricity. We are witnessing in Japan what happens when you don't have electricity and how terrible that is for people from the health point of view alone.
And without - and nuclear power is the largest-scale way to provide nonpolluting electricity. This - I think Mr. Riccio is a little off the scale here with his claims about radiation. You have to ask how much radiation, what are the exposures and what is that compared to natural background radiation?
CONAN: And Jim Riccio, let's go back to the essence of what her argument is there, is the best of the bad lot. Yes, it's risky, but maybe less risky than known risks of coal-fired plants.
Mr. RICCIO: Well, in fact, we actually have to go back and correct something Ms. Cravens just said. She claimed that Chernobyl didn't have a containment. In fact, it had a pressure-suppression containment system that is the same conceptual design as what is in the GE Mark 1 reactors that are now basically experiencing hydrogen explosions in Japan. We have the same containment on 30-something reactors here in the States. And those reactors...
CONAN: But - so to other point. What...
Ms. CRAVENS: This is not the case.
CONAN: And there's going to be a dispute about that. Let's agree to disagree. Moving on to the problems presented - the real problems presented by coal and oil and natural gas.
Mr. RICCIO: Indeed. And actually, we're right now fighting coal plants, as well. But, you know, the reality is you don't need to go base load. When you have the head of the Federal Electricity Regulatory Commission, Wellinghoff, saying that you don't need any more nuclear or coal plants, it's not just Greenpeace that thinks that they're an anachronism.
CONAN: And what would they build instead?
Mr. RICCIO: Right now, we've put in a lot more wind and solar power - actually, a lot more wind than we've ever put into new nuclear in the last several years. Our biggest bang for our buck, especially in addressing global warming, is with energy efficiency. And actually, natural gas - if you're replacing coal plants with natural gas-fired turbines, you also get a substantial savings. That is in Pacala and Socolow's wedges articles from Princeton.
CONAN: And there's also problems presented by fracking, which is how you get the natural gas.
Mr. RICCIO: No, not all of natural gas, but some natural gas.
CONAN: But not all - but significant amounts.
Mr. RICCIO: Indeed.
CONAN: We're talking about the new debate over nuclear power after the events in Japan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And Gwyneth Cravens, one argument that's particularly difficult to respond to is: What do you do with the nuclear waste?
Ms. CRAVENS: Well, keep in mind that all of the nuclear waste, spent nuclear fuel, in the United States - and it shouldn't be called spent fuel because it retains about 98 percent of its energy after one trip through the reactor - the volume is so small it could all fit in one Best Buy or one Wal-Mart. And that's from 40, 50 years of pouring out trillions of kilowatt hours. So keep that in mind. So the volume is small.
When you recycle it, as they do in France, the volume becomes tiny. And you immobilize the residue in glass and you put it in a deep geologic repository, and it's not going anywhere. And it's actually safer than some of the waste products of coal, which never decay. From the - we discard 179 million tons a year of batteries which contain toxic heavy metals which never decay, and those are just put in landfills, mostly.
So the important thing about nuclear power is it always isolates and shields its waste. It's very well known how to protect the public from it. And yes, things can be done much better than in Japan. Things could've been planned better. But like any technology - I mean, people die from wind turbine blades that go flying. So there are - I want to point out that worldwide, per terawatt hour, nuclear power is safer than any other large-scale power source and actually safer than wind if you look at terawatt hour harm that has been, you know, per terawatt hour that's been done. This is according to a Europe - the European Union's internee study.
CONAN: Jim Riccio, is waste still a significant problem?
Mr. RICCIO: It certainly is. And right now, we're concerned about the waste pools in the Japanese reactors, because this morning, you had water drop below the top of the fuel. The fuel caught fire. It apparently refueled the pool...
Ms. CRAVENS: It's an oil fire.
Mr. RICCIO: And now they're burning. Or now - sorry, it's now boiling.
Ms. CRAVENS: It's an oil fire.
Mr. RICCIO: So basically, the fear is that should that water boil off - and you have no way to cool - right now, they're trying to pour water with helicopters on top of that pool, not exactly an ideal situation. The concern is you have 20 years worth of waste in those pools, sitting three stories in the air. And should that water boil off, there's a chance that that fuel will catch fire and spew the radiation over a much larger area, more like Chernobyl because the fire will help propel the radiation similar to how the radiation was propelled out by the graphite fire at Chernobyl.
So you'll get a larger spread of radiation and from the three - the two partial meltdowns and the possible full core meltdown at units one, three and two.
CONAN: Okay. And if there was one event you were going to look toward in this country in terms of the future of nuclear power, Jim Riccio, what would it be?
Mr. RICCIO: Well, obviously, here in this country, we've melted down Three Mile Island several years ago, and that was a half-core meltdown. Don't think of it like pie. Think of it like a two-layer cake. They melted the entire top layer with(ph) the rest.
CONAN: Some time ago. Yes.
Mr. RICCIO: So, obviously, you know, that is a cautionary tale here in the States. Right now, we're relicensing 40-year-old reactors and pretending they can last forever. We still have the same, exact designs here as they have in Japan. Our waste is sitting three stories in the air. And a lot of these reactors are leaking radiation into groundwater as we speak. So, you know, there are enough examples here in the States that should be cautionary tales, and Japan should be an awful reminder of the downside, as well.
CONAN: Gwyneth Cravens, the final word. What do you look forward to in terms of a decision, in terms of national policy on the future of nuclear power?
Ms. CRAVENS: Well, I'm with President Obama and with Al Gore, who recently persuaded Al Franken to help lift the moratorium against nuclear plants in Minnesota. I think that we've got to have more nuclear power. It's much better. The technology is much better and the new wave of reactors that's coming online is going to be more improved, like any technology - as time goes by, things improve. And we need nuclear power if we're going to get off fossil fuels. That's all there is to it.
CONAN: Gwyneth Cravens, thanks very much for your time today.
Ms. CRAVENS: My pleasure.
CONAN: Gwyneth Cravens is the author of "Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy." And she joined us from member station KAZU in Seaside, California.
Jim Riccio, appreciate your time today, too.
Mr. RICCIO: Thank you. My pleasure.
CONAN: Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace USA, with us here in Studio 3A.
I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
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