Japan Radiation Threat Reignites Debate On Nuclear Power In U.S.

The nuclear emergency unfolding around the Fukushima power plant in Japan has reignited the debate on nuclear energy in the United States. In the first of a two-part discussion on the issue, guest host Farai Chideya speaks with California Congresswoman Lois Capps about her concerns around the safety of nuclear power plants in her district and across the country. Chideya also speaks with Federico Pena, former Secretary of Energy in the Clinton administration, who supports nuclear power production.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

And we'll hear from just outside of Benghazi in a few minutes. It's the unofficial capital of rebel Libya. We'll hear from a reporter on the frontlines with opposition forces.

But first, the future of nuclear energy. In the wake of the crisis in Japan, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced a 90-day safety review of all nuclear power plants in this country. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu spoke on "Fox News Sunday."

Secretary STEVEN CHU (Department of Energy): There are additional safety measures taken over the years and with this action in Japan, there will be a thorough review going forward about all the reactors in the United States.

CHIDEYA: Many Americans are debating whether nuclear plants in this country are safe enough to withstand a crisis on the scale of what we saw in Japan. The United States is the world's largest producer of nuclear power with 104 nuclear power plants generating almost 20 percent of the country's total electrical production.

Over two days we'll discuss the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. Tomorrow, we look at whether nuclear energy should be regarded as a key part of so-called clean technology, as some contend. Or if it's a danger to the planet as others believe.

Today, we look at the politics of nuclear energy. First, with Congresswoman Lois Capps, who represents Central California's 23rd District, a region that includes the Diablo Canyon Power Plant.

Representative Capps just co-authored a letter to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission urging it to examine the safety of America's power plants. She also sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Congresswoman Lois Capps, welcome to the program.

Representative LOIS CAPPS (Democrat, California): Thank you, Farai. It's a pleasure to be with you.

CHIDEYA: So we mentioned that the Diablo Canyon Power Plant is in your district, near San Luis Obispo counties in California. And there's a seismic fault half a mile from the plant. What concerns you about the plant?

Rep. CAPPS: I have had long-term concerns about Diablo Canyon nuclear facility and have been calling for more comprehensive seismic studies relating to this particular area in my congressional district for many, many years. Now the devastating events in Japan underscore completely the importance of addressing seismic and other safety issues at all of our nuclear facilities, especially for me, Diablo Canyon.

CHIDEYA: A report by Diablo Canyon's parent company PG&E says the plant can safely withstand a 7.5 magnitude earthquake. Now, Japan was hit by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake. Are that plant's safety measures adequate?

Rep. CAPPS: We can't predict for sure the intensity of any earthquake fault. We can establish boundaries. But for one example, when Diablo Canyon facility was first built, the Hosgri earthquake fault lying very close at shore was acknowledged, but not the newly evidenced fault called the Shoreline Fault. That has just come to light in 2008.

But I'm concerned that there's very little stakeholder input in these studies that are done. I would like to have my constituents assured about issues that I'd been asking about for a very long time such as adequate backup power, evacuation routes, additional safeguards being put into place.

CHIDEYA: You have advocated the development of alternative sources of energy. We're talking about wind, solar, even ocean current energy. Given the fact that the U.S. does have other energy reserves, do you think that aging nuclear power plants should be shut down at least for a while?

Rep. CAPPS: I'm not going to make that ultimate decision. But what I do believe that I and my constituents have the right to ask for, are the results of comprehensive seismic studies. Why should we proceed with relicensing of these facilities? You mentioned the word aging. Until we have verifiable third party comprehensive studies to give us the data that we need, the government needs to make the determination, is this worth the risk?

You would only have to see one or two pictures from Japan to realize that those estimates that were given, that were so completely out of line, certainly are not - make it all not worth it.

CHIDEYA: Congresswoman Lois Capps represents Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties in California and sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. She joined us from Santa Barbara, California. Congresswoman, thank you so much.

Rep. CAPPS: My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: We appreciate you taking time.

Rep. CAPPS: Sure.

CHIDEYA: Now, according to a USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted last week, 7 in 10 Americans say they are more concerned about a nuclear disaster occurring in the United States after the recent events in Japan. We wanted to know what people already living near nuclear plants think about safety and clean energy.

Vermont, for example, is home to a 40-year-old nuclear power plant. The facility was recently granted a renewal license, despite the state legislature warning it was too old and voting to retire it.

We asked Vermont Public Radio's John Dillon to help us gauge how the community feels about the Yankee power plant. He recorded these interviews at the local post office in Montpelier, Vermont, beginning with 74-year-old Erik Esselstyn of North Montpelier.

Mr. ERIK ESSELSTYN: I certainly think nuclear power can be safe. There's an awful lot of emotion around it. Certainly in Japan with Hiroshima, Nagasaki and what's going on now. Given the climate change, to continue to generate more than half our power with coal is a quiet form of suicide. And if we're going to continue to use electricity at the rate we've been doing it, we need something and nuclear could be that option.

Ms. KELLY KINDESTIN: You know what? You see what happens over in Japan and the fact that the generators failed, you know, leaves a little concern. But, again, that could happen anywhere, I think. And then of course we have all the controversy going about, you know, shutting down our own nuclear plant. So, you know, it's really hard to say one way or the other. I don't know whether they're safe or I'd like to think that they are.

CHIDEYA: And that was 43-year-old Kelly Kindestin, who lives in Barre, Vermont.

Now we turn to someone who's heard plenty of debate about the safety and wisdom of nuclear power production, former Energy secretary Federico Pena. Mr. Pena served in the Clinton administration in the late 1990s and he joins us now from member station KUVO in Denver, Colorado. Welcome and thanks for joining us.

Mr. FEDERICO PENA (Former Energy Secretary, Clinton Administration): Happy to be here, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So, what would you say to Americans who are concerned about the safety of nuclear energy, especially in the light of Japan?

Mr. PENA: Well, they're all reasonable questions and I would hope that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy would do what is being requested, and that is to go back and review all the past decisions, in terms of past standards that have been used for the current nuclear power plants.

But going forward, learn from the experience in Japan. Hopefully we'll get a transparent sort of report from the Japanese about lessons learned and then apply those going forward.

And the four areas should be on plant design and containment specifications; secondly, operator training; three, operating an emergency response protocol. And then, lastly, evacuation planning and procedures.

The American people deserve clear assurances from our highest levels of government that our current nuclear power plants are safe and that those that are planned for the future are going to be safe also, meeting the highest standards we can possibly apply.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of the current plants, it's standard practice to extend the life of reactors from a plant to 25 years to 40 years or longer. Is it safe to do that?

Mr. PENA: Well, we rely on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and it takes testimony from many different parties. We need to make sure and it needs to make sure that it's applying very high standards. And to anticipate the un-anticipatable.

For example, in Japan, the power plants responded well to the earthquake. What happened was the tsunami and the fact that the pools lost generation and therefore they heated up. So it is the unanticipated consequences of the first problem that was the issue in Japan.

We've got to think about that similarly here in the United States. Are we not only able to withstand earthquakes, but what about other exogenous forces that can result thereafter?

In addition to that, we have to beef up our attention to security. I know when I was secretary of Energy, we asked the nuclear plants to make sure that they were immune and protected from terrorist attacks. These are pools with nuclear spent rods that are in those pools. They're there for a long, long time. So we need to make sure that they're safe.

So there's lots of issues here that are very reasonable to be raised by the American people. It's up to our federal agencies to make sure that we are responding.

CHIDEYA: Now, President Obama has defended the use of nuclear energy and even proposed $36 billion in loans in his 2012 budget that would go towards building new nuclear power plants. Do you agree with that proposal?

Mr. PENA: Yes. I think it's important that nuclear power remain one of the many forms of electricity in our country. As was stated earlier, 20 percent of our electricity comes from nuclear power. And, in fact, in the northeast, it's more than that. If you look at the East Coast, it's probably 30, 35 percent, given the number of reactors there.

So there are some parts of the country that are even more dependent. However, we need to continue to move forward on a very broad base of energy strategy involving renewables. Natural gas, now, which is very cheap, I think is going to come onboard to supply power to these power plants going forward. So it's got to be a comprehensive array of strategies including nuclear, but we've got to make sure that nuclear is safe.

The other piece of that is reducing the consumption of electricity. We know the cheapest way, the most cost-effective way to deal with these issues is to be more thoughtful, be more energy efficient in how we use electricity - so everything from demand-response programs, smart-meter technology, which we're now seeing around the country. We've got to spend much more time in working with both consumers, commercial and industrial users of electricity to find new ways to actually reduce our consumption of electricity so we're not so dependent on massive construction projects going forward. All those things need to be done.

CHIDEYA: Federico Pena is a former secretary of energy in the Clinton administration, and he joined us from member station KUVO in Denver.

Thank you so much for your time.

Mr. PENA: Thank you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: And tune in tomorrow as we continue our discussion of nuclear energy, focusing on science. Should nuclear energy be regarded as a key part of so-called clean technology?

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