Is Nuclear Energy The Best Alternative?

In the second installment of Tell Me More's conversation on the future of nuclear power in the United States, guest host Farai Chideya explores safer energy alternatives. The debate on the safety of nuclear energy has been reignited by the continuing radiation threat at the Fukushima power plant in Japan. About twenty percent of the country's electricity is generated by nuclear facilities. Chideya speaks with Jigar Shah, CEO of Carbon War Room, a non-profit group championing clean energy technology. She also hears from leading environmental justice activist Robert Bullard, about how new power plants might disproportionately affect minority communities.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now we turn to the future of energy. Nuclear energy accounts for about 20 percent of electrical production in this country. The rest comes mostly from a mix of coal, oil and natural gas plus alternative energies like solar and wind power.

Yesterday on the program, we spoke about the politics of nuclear energy. Today, we ask which energy sources are the safest with the least environmental impact. In a few minutes, we'll hear from Robert Bullard. He's an environmental sociologist who's concerned that building new nuclear plants could disproportionately affect communities of color.

But first, we're joined by Jigar Shah. He's CEO of the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit that champions clean energy technology. He's also the founder of Sun Edison, a company credited with helping to turn solar energy into a multibillion dollar industry. He joins us now from Washington, D.C. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JIGAR SHAH (CEO, Carbon War Room): Nice to be with you.

CHIDEYA: So, you're nonprofit, the Carbon War Room, is looking for clean solutions to our energy needs. Even nuclear power plants can emit, you know, very small amounts of carbon related to the production of the fuel. Can it still be considered clean?

Mr. SHAH: Well, absolutely. I think our challenge is just that we really are committed to making sure that the 17 gigatons of carbon that scientists are telling us that we need to remove out of the atmosphere to stay below two degrees gets done. And nuclear is just so expensive these days that it just seems highly unlikely that we're going to build enough plants to get there.

CHIDEYA: So, are you supportive of the Obama administration's plans to expand the number of nuclear power plants.

Mr. SHAH: Well, we're supportive of carbon emission reductions. And so I think that, you know, that what we're trying to do is to harness the power of entrepreneurial effort to unlock market-driven solutions to climate change. And so if nuclear can stand alone without some of the government guarantees that seem to be very difficult to get through a Congress that is trying to cut cost, then, you know, I think that would be great.

CHIDEYA: You've been an entrepreneur in alternative energy, especially solar. Right now, just a small fraction of our energy comes from sources like wind, solar, oceans. How much more energy can we expect to come from these sources five years from now, 10 years from now, 50, what are we looking at?

Mr. SHAH: So, Germany started their program really in earnest around 2003, about four years before the U.S. got into the game in a big way. And today, 10 percent of all their peak power demands were installed this year in 2010 alone, using solar. And so you could expect that level of progress in wind, solar, et cetera, in the U.S. within three to four years.

CHIDEYA: So, at the Carbon War Room, what are you looking at as the most promising type of fuel production? I mean, we've named quite a few. What excites you?

Mr. SHAH: Well, for electricity, what excites me the most, actually, is just getting rid of energy waste. I mean, today, the Department of Energy says that we've got so much wasted heat that we could provide 50 gigawatts, which is roughly equivalent to about 5 percent of all the energy needs in the U.S.

From just converting waste heat to electricity, things like that or a smart grid where, you know, in the D.C., Pennsylvania, Maryland area, you actually have over 1,500 megawatts of customer-driven cuts that they're willing to do in times of need for the grid, which has saved the region.

I mean, just in 2008, they were expecting rolling blackouts in Pennsylvania, which now people are projecting that that's been pushed off for over 10 years because of all the progress in smart grid.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask about clean coal. The Obama administration also supports what is called clean coal. Can you explain just a tiny bit about what that is and do you think it's a technology we should continue to invest in?

Mr. SHAH: Well, clean coal is the act of taking carbon dioxide and either removing it before the combustion of the coal by using fissure tropes as synthetic gas process, or doing it afterwards out of the smoke stack and then finding a place to store it for a long time under the ground or in tanks.

And the challenge you have with that is it costs a lot of energy. So if the coal plant was producing 100 units of energy, 10 units of that energy would have to be used just to deal with the carbon dioxide. So only 90 units would be left to actually sell to consumers, which means that the price of power would have to go up.

CHIDEYA: I've been hearing quite a bit about the green jobs revolution being potentially derailed by the fact that China in particular has taken over a lot of manufacturing of the different technologies that would be used in the greening of America. Is the U.S. competitive?

Mr. SHAH: Well, the U.S. is certainly competitive. I mean, it goes without saying that since 1970s we haven't had an industrial policy in this country to actually encourage manufacturing and that's, you know, different than Malaysia or Germany or China. But there's a lot of green jobs being created in the U.S. I mean, you know, my company, Sun Edison that I had started, has over 800 people that are just installing solar projects. And those are all people that have hired since 2007.

And so, you're seeing a tremendous number of people who have been hired locally because you can't outsource carpenters or electricians or, you know, folks working on the roof or others.

CHIDEYA: Now, of course we have been talking about the crisis in Japan. And in the wake of that nuclear crisis, many Americans are concerned about the nuclear power plants in their own backyards. What would you say to them?

Mr. SHAH: Well, I mean, I think - first, we're talking about nuclear because of the tsunami in Japan. And so my respect and sympathy goes out to everyone who's affected by the tsunami in Japan. I, you know, what I would say is that the beauty about Japan is they have been investing in alternatives to nuclear and other technologies for several decades now.

I mean, Japan started their solar program in 1992. The wind farms, as we all know now, were unaffected by the tsunami. And so what you're finding is is that with Web 2.0 and telecommunications 4.0 in Japan, you actually have the ability to rapidly switch the grid over to more secure and safer forms of energy like distributed generation.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jigar Shah, the founder of Sun Edison, a company credited with turning solar energy into a multibillion dollar industry. He's also CEO of the Carbon War Room, a nonprofit that aims to slow climate change by involving the energy industry. He joined us from Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much.

Mr. SHAH: Thanks for having us.

CHIDEYA: One of the nuclear plants that will undergo a 90-day safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is located in Monticello, Minnesota. With the help of Minnesota Public Radio, we asked residents there to weigh in on the benefits and risks of nuclear energy compared to other sources.

The town is home to the Monticello Nuclear Power Plant. First, you'll hear from 24-year-old Derek Nelson(ph), who supports the continued use of nuclear energy.

Mr. DEREK NELSON: The only other energy I would really think that we should look at still would be the burning of clean coal. I personally don't really see how wind energy or all these different forms of energy are really productive or very useful, especially when you come into the Midwest areas. I see how they can be a lot more useful, like, on the East Coast or West Coast, where you have a lot more wind traffic.

But when it comes to, like, the Midwest, it seems and coal and nuclear power is the best way to get the energy, and we are able to move it along state lines a lot faster and a lot better.

CHIDEYA: But 39-year-old Gina Callus(ph) thinks we should shift our energy strategy.

Ms. GINA CALLUS: I'm a little nervous with the nuclear power with what happened over in Japan with the tsunami and the meltdown. It brings concern that we would have the same kind of problems here. I think wind and water are two power resources that we haven't - we are not putting enough effort and time into.

CHIDEYA: In addition to the questions about safe energy sources, there's also the issue of which communities bear the burden of housing power plants. My next guest, Dr. Robert Bullard, is director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. In 1979, he did an influential study showing that 100 percent of landfills in Houston were in African-American communities. He's also the author of "Dumping in Dixie," which chronicles five black communities fighting to protect themselves from industrial pollution.

Now Dr. Bullard is questioning the placement of future nuclear plants. He's speaking with us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Welcome.

Dr. ROBERT BULLARD (Director, Environmental Justice Resource Center, Clark Atlanta University): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So, nuclear energy has been touted as a clean technology because the power plants emit minimal carbon. Do you agree with that? What has your research shown?

Dr. BULLARD: Well, I think the fact that nuclear power does not emit CO2 emissions, that's a plus. But there are other downsides to it in terms of accidents and what to do with the waste, the spent fuel. I think the issue of where facilities such as nuclear power plants, coal plants and other types of energy-producing facilities get placed, oftentimes get buried in this whole idea that we need more energy.

CHIDEYA: Your research shows that 68 percent of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. So how can we ensure that power plants are more equitably spread throughout American communities?

Dr. BULLARD: If you look at the location of nuclear power plants and other power plant facilities such as coal-fire power plants or other types of facilities, they are not randomly distributed. As a matter of fact, they are often sighted in poor communities, working class communities and communities of color. And the fact that everybody uses electricity, but everybody does not have to bear the burden of where these facilities are located.

And so it becomes an issue of citing equity, and who gets clean energy versus who gets stuck with the dirty and risky technology energy.

CHIDEYA: Well, President Obama's 2012 budget proposes $36 billion in loans for the building of new power plants. Are you concerned that new nuclear power plants will be built in areas that have a high proportion of communities of color?

Dr. BULLARD: What many communities that have borne the burden for these types of facilities always say: Well, who's going to get the facility? Everybody needs the electricity, but everybody doesn't have to live next to where the electricity is generated. It is not accidental or coincidental that the facilities that were used to jumpstart the (unintelligible) in the nuclear power industry, the two plants that are being proposed - nuclear power plants that are being proposed are being proposed in a predominantly black county in Georgia.

And I think the fact that if you ask people in Burke County, in Shell Bluff community, the black community, if they voted to have those two nuclear power plants that are already there, and if they voted to have two more, which would make four, they would tell you no.

And so we're concerned about who gets the clean industry and who gets the dirty. In Georgia, for example, three out of four of the proposed coal-fired power plants that are right now being looked at are in predominantly black counties. And that's an issue of equity and justice and fairness, I think, that needs to be considered when we talk about bringing on a green economy and a clean energy future.

CHIDEYA: What about the flipside? With new technologies around solar, wind, ocean currents, are those cleaner, greener technologies going into communities of color?

Dr. BULLARD: Well, after studying this sighting pattern and an access over the last four years, there are few occasions when people of color and poor people get the best first. We often have to wait. And so what we're seeing is that, you know, they're building wind farms off of Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, while they're rushing to put coal-fired power plants in black communities in the South.

And so what we have to make sure is that if we are talking about renewables, we're talking about clean energy, we're talking about green, we have to make sure that all communities have access to that new technology and that clean energy future. What we've had is basically energy apartheid, and more affluent, more politically connected and powerful folks with money, they're getting the best first. And this is not rocket science. It's more political science.

CHIDEYA: Well, Dr. Robert Bullard is director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. He joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting. Thank you so much for your time.

Dr. BULLARD: My pleasure.

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