IRA FLATOW, host:
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
And for the rest of the hour, we're going to look at the possible rebirth of nuclear energy in the US. President Bush has called for the building of new nuclear power plants. No new plants have been added since 1985. No new licenses since the early '70s. But yesterday, an important Senate committee, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, opened the door by approving a lot of tax money that could pay for loans to nuclear power bill there--to build nuclear power plants.
Oddly enough, the president and the Congress are on the same page as some environmentalists who believe that nuclear power is the lesser of two evils; that the other evil being global warming. The concerns over global warming heating up. Some environmentalists, including the co-founder of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, another person, Judith Greenwald, who is of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, have a Web page. It says, `Pew Center director touts nuclear energy as tool to prevent greenhouse gas emissions.' There's some evidence of those green folks turning around to nuclear power.
You have other countries who have certainly embraced nuclear--the nuclear option. France has been doing it for a long time. They get over 75 percent of their power from nuclear reactors. More reactors are planned for China. China's going to build a lot of them; Japan, Russia, South Korea. Sir David King, Tony Blair's science adviser, told us here on SCIENCE FRIDAY that he believed that nuclear power can offer a bridge into the future.
So here in the US, we only get 20 percent of our energy from nuclear. That's the same amount that we had in 1979 when the Three Mile Island nuclear facility suffered that partial meltdown and virtually halted the construction of new plants. So for the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about the pros and cons of rejuvenating America's nuclear industry.
Some of the issues--probably the most thorny issue is one that has been thorny for a long time: What to do with the nuclear wastes? It doesn't look like the Yucca Mountain idea is going to be ready anytime soon, if it ever will be, so are there other waste solutions that are out there, some other things we might do with the spent nuclear fuel rods? What about nuclear proliferation? Is there a danger that the nuclear fuel might fall into the wrong hands? These are some of the questions we'll be talking about. And if you'd like to get in on the conversation, I invite you to give us a call. Our number is 1 (800) 989-8255, 1 (800) 989-TALK.
Let me introduce my guests. Angie Howard is executive vice president at the Nuclear Energy Institute. She joins us from our NPR studios in Washington. Thank you for being with us today, Ms. Howard.
Ms. ANGIE HOWARD (Nuclear Energy Institute): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: You're welcome. Arjun Makhijani is the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. He's also in our NPR studios. Thank you for joining us, Arjun.
Mr. ARJUN MAKHIJANI (Institute for Energy and Environmental Research): Thank you very much, Ira.
FLATOW: Thank you. Also, yesterday the House Science Subcommittee on Energy held hearings on Capitol Hill that was looking into the nuclear fuel waste and reprocessing question. And joining us now more--is Congresswoman Judy Biggert. She's a Republican from Illinois and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Congresswoman.
Representative JUDY BIGGERT (Republican, Illinois): Thank you. Nice to be here.
FLATOW: Let me ask Angie Howard first, it seems like there is a renewed interest in nuclear power that's generally been stalled since Three Mile Island in this country, correct?
Ms. HOWARD: Well, there have been no orders since that time.
Ms. HOWARD: But the plants have come online in the 1980s and in the 1990s, and you were correct in saying providing 20 percent of our electricity. But it is the largest program in the world, and when you think about that 20 percent, it's electricity for one of every five homes and businesses in the country, and so it's very important because that's clean, affordable and safe electricity for our consumers.
FLATOW: Arjun, many environmentalists are saying that the time has come for nuclear power, because it is the lesser of two evils, being--the other evil being greenhouse gas, but you don't agree with that.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: No, I don't. You know, nuclear power had lots of excuses to come into being. None of them have been very good. I do agree that nuclear power can offset carbon dioxide emissions, so let's set that aside. But there's no shortage of energy sources that can offset carbon dioxide emissions. And the economic debate and the Bush administration's objections for the whole problem of global warming have been it costs money. And what is in short supply is not energy sources. Wind can offset CO2. Solar can offset CO2. Nuclear can offset CO2. What is it going to cost? And nuclear is among the more costly sources, more costly than wind energy, for example, in the United States, and we have plenty of that. We have far more wind energy potential in this country, as much as all the oil production in OPEC.
FLATOW: Representative Biggert, you had hearings yesterday to address one of the thornier issues, which is what to do with the spent fuel that the reactors would generate.
Rep. BIGGERT: Yes.
FLATOW: The idea has been that we put them in Yucca Mountain, but so far, that has not been shaping up too well, has it?
Rep. BIGGERT: No. Well, Yucca Mountain was to be the solution. However, its intended opening has slipped from 1998 to 2010 and now likely to be 2012 or 2014. And I think that the process of just putting the waste in there is not a good idea. What we need to do is to reduce that waste and then we will only have to have one Yucca Mountain. And let me just say that the way that the United States takes nuclear power, it's like having a log in your fireplace, and we burn 3 percent off of one side, 3 percent off the other side. Then we take that log and throw it into a mountain and bury it, and with the recycling and reprocessing, we'll be able to reduce that, not only the--reduce the size of it, but also the toxicity of it so that it won't last so long in its radioactivity state.
FLATOW: So if you ca--if you recycle it, then you might not need to build other Yucca Mountains.
Rep. BIGGERT: That's right.
FLATOW: I've heard experts saying, you know, we'll need at least four Yucca Mountains if we go ahead with our plan.
Rep. BIGGERT: Right. And it's been said now that if we have the recycling, we won't need another Yucca Mountain until the next century, which is quite a far way away.
FLATOW: What about those who say that Yucca Mountain is just not a good site for water that may seep into it, for the geology of the region?
Rep. BIGGERT: Well, I think...
Ms. HOWARD: Well, our l...
FLATOW: Let me get Congresswoman--let the Congresswoman...
Ms. HOWARD: Go ahead.
FLATOW: ...finish first. Go ahead.
Ms. HOWARD: OK. Finish it.
Rep. BIGGERT: I think that the way that--the reprocessing and the way that it's packaged and put into Yucca Mountain is not not the problem.
Ms. HOWARD: Well, I was just going to say that the--20 years of extensive science went into Yucca Mountain, looking at all of those hydrology, geology and all of the different scientific aspects of the site, and then the design of the project itself to protect the public from the used fuel that would be stored there. I agree with Congresswoman Biggert that we don't use sufficiently in once through cycles the nuclear fuel. There's valuable fuel that can come out of this used fuel. That's why we call it used fuel. And to study the aspects of reprocessing, to have that as an alternative, but we still do need some geologic disposal site. Yucca Mountain is that best site, and to go forward with these ideas together so that you can have a repository at Yucca Mountain and then bring the fuel out, so that the material is there safely stored in one geologic storage area and then bring the fuel out when it's appropriate to reprocess.
FLATOW: Arjun, you published a paper...
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Yeah.
FLATOW: ...Yucca Mountain: An Example Not to Follow.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Yeah. Well, to do reprocessing and Yucca Mountain would be the worst of all worlds. Everybody points to France, because it's the center of the reprocessing industry in the world. Well, I've studied the French nuclear industry quite a bit. I just finished a project studying the repository program for their government-funded stakeholder group. I led an international team to evaluate their research and presented that report in French this January in France.
Reprocessing costs about a penny a kilowatt hour more in France, and they don't actually use all of the plutonium they separate. I read the House report on reprocessing, and it said that the French actually immediately use all the plutonium. They don't. There's 80 tons of separated plutonium stored at La Hague. There's 80 tons of separated plutonium stored at Sellafield in Britain. There's 30 tons--and this is an invitation to proliferation problems. La Hague supplies separated plutonium to Japan, which hasn't used a single ton of it as yet, and a couple of years back, their Labor Party leader, Mr. Ozawa, suggested that Japan should use or could use, if China starts acting up, their commercial plutonium for thousands of bombs. That's what he said, Mr. Ozawa did.
FLATOW: I know, Congresswoman, you have to leave, but I wanted--before you go, I'd like to get your reaction to this risk of proliferation.
Rep. BIGGERT: Yeah.
FLATOW: I'm sure you must be thinking about it.
Rep. BIGGERT: I was just over in France a month ago, too, and looking at their reprocessing plants, and they are using a technology that was developed 20 or 30 years ago, where they are--pure plutonium does come out of the recycling. What we're looking at are new technologies and that--actually has been working on--Argonne National Laboratory, which is in my district in Illinois, and that is a concept where the residue process, after all of the recycling--that comes out will be plutonium, but it's mixed with other nasty elements, americium, neptunium and curium. And these would--probably didn't pronounce those right, but these are things that would make it practically impossible to sort out any plutonium or--you know, for proliferation. And I think we're looking--want to make sure that the process wo--that's what it would be so that there would be no chance of nuclear proliferation. But I think that with these new technologies, we'd move far ahead of that process that was developed 20 or 30 years ago.
FLATOW: So basically to sum up, you're saying if we went to new technologies for reprocessing the fuel rods, we could make them last a lot longer, we wouldn't need to have as large a disposal problem--one Yucca Mountain equivalent...
Rep. BIGGERT: That's right.
FLATOW: ...instead of four or five, and what would be stored there would not be easily proliferated because it would not be in a form that wa--easy to turn into a weapon or something.
Rep. BIGGERT: That's right. And then, of course, we've got the benefits of the environment with having the clean, efficient and safe fuel.
FLATOW: All right. Congresswoman Biggert, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
Rep. BIGGERT: OK. Thank you very much.
FLATOW: Good luck to you.
Rep. BIGGERT: Uh-huh. Bye.
FLATOW: What are you--that--well, let me just tell--that was Judy Biggert, a Republican from Illinois.
We're talking about the nuclear option this hour, and I'm also talking with Angie Howard and Arjun Makhijani.
Arjun, what do you think about that?
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Yeah. Well, I'm quite familiar with the technology that Congresswoman Biggert talked about. It was developed at Argonne. It's called electrometalurgical processing. It is quite different from the Purex process, which is used in France and has been for decades. The Purex process has the advantage of the old clunker uranium separation--enrichment technology is that it's very big, it's very easy to detect, it produces lots of waste. In fact, the European countries have been protesting the French and the British for polluting their seas; governments have been, not anti-nuclear activists alone.
There are a couple of problems with electrometalurgical processing. It's true, as the congresswoman said, that it has neptunium and curium and americium mixed with it, so that no nuclear weapons state would want to use that plutonium. However, americium-241 and neptunium-237 are also fissile materials. And terrorists, for instance, or states who don't have nuclear weapons-useable materials, could quite easily make nuclear weapons, especially if you're not worried about radiation doses. And remember, even in this country during the Manhattan Project, in the Soviet Union, history is full of examples where radiation protection came second and building bombs came first.
So, in fact, going to electrometalurgical processing poses a pretty big danger in that it's a compact technology. It's like going from the big gaseous diffusion enrichment plants, which are easy to detect, to centrifuge plants, which have been built secretly and avoided inspections. Argonne has boasted, if I remember correctly--although, this may be faulty memory, but it--so I won't quote it. It's a very compact technology so it would be very difficult to detect. And so we're actually inviting proliferation problems, I believe, by going to more compact reprocessing.
FLATOW: Angie Howard.
Ms. HOWARD: Well, from the standpoint of reprocessing, there are lots of new technologies that are being developed, and there's funding in the energy bill and in the appropriations process to look at advanced fuel cycle options. All of those are important. And I believe in Dr. Biggert's hearing yesterday, one of the witnesses said that it was important to look at, and if we move to reprocessing in the United States, let's do it right and take the time to do the research. And I would certainly agree with that. In the interim process, though, we do need disposal areas for the used nuclear fuel. Now the fuel is safely stored at power plants around the country, but it's important to move that fuel to one repository where it can be placed underground and monitored in one location.
And monitored is a very key. The repository that would be built at Yucca Mountain, it would be one that would be monitored for many years. The fuel must be retrievable; that's part of the rules of the development of Yucca Mountain. And so from our position is that we can safely store this material, we can develop a repository that can store this material, it can be monitored, if it needs to be brought back out, either from a safety reason or from the purpose of using that fuel again in the future in future reactors, we think that is the best option to go forward with.
FLATOW: We're talking about nuclear energy this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm talking with Angie Howard, executive vice president at the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Arjun Makhijani, who is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. 1 (800) 989-8255.
Arjun, any reaction? Because in your paper you really...
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Yeah.
FLATOW: ...slam Yucca Mountain as being just about useless, if I were to go out on an edge and say that.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Well, you did go out on an edge. I say this as a supporter of repositories in the sense. I don't really think there's a good solution to the problem of nuclear waste where the peak doses occur hundreds of thousands of years from now. We're taxing our ingenuity and have done so, and I've studied this problem for about 25 years. And I say this as a supporter of a repository as a least-worst solution to a very big problem that we've created. And I've studied the US repository program and while many of the documents in it and Yucca Mountain just happens to be the worst single site that has been selected or studied in the United States.
In 1983, the Department of Energy-commissioned study from the National Academy of Sciences projected drinking water doses--that's normally how you assess a repository, what will people be drinking in the future nearby this repository--and the projected doses from Yucca Mountain were by far the largest of any repository studied. The department's own studies, which I have in front of me, its own contractors have published graphs and charts--I wish you had a screen I could show these graphs and charts on--show that according to the standards that the national academy has advocated for more than 20 years, Yucca Mountain would not meet existing repository standards. In fact, rules have been changed four different times to accommodate Yucca Mountain because Yucca Mountain simply can't meet the standards. And I say this as--unlike many environmentalists who don't support repositories, I do think we need one.
FLATOW: Now is there one that you have in mind, or a better place that might work?
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Well, you know, I think we've rushed into site selection. A repository is a marriage between engineered barriers, the packages that you build, the chemicals and the rocks that you artificially put around that might absorb and hold the radioactivity, and the geology, but Yucca Mountain--yeah. So...
FLATOW: All right, let--well--hang on to that thought, Arjun, 'cause I shouldn't have asked you when we're going into a break. But we'll come back and finish it up. So stay with us, OK?
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.
FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
We're talking about possible rebirth of nuclear power in the United States with Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Takoma Park, Maryland; Angie Howard, executive vice president at the Nuclear Energy Institute. Our number: 1 (800) 989-8255.
And when I rudely interrupted Arjun, he was--which I do every week, unfortunately--not to you, but to everyone else--you were telling us what--about whether there could be--you don't approve of Yucca Flats, you don't think--Yucca Mountain--you don't think that's gonna work. But what is an alternative to it?
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Yes, we've actually published a plan for how one should go about this. I think we need about a 10- or 15-year research where we would study existing natural locations where radioactivity is well-contained.
FLATOW: Let me just stop you there for a second.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: We would--yeah. Yeah.
FLATOW: Haven't we studied it for 10 or 15 years already?
Ms. HOWARD: Twenty years at the most.
FLATOW: Twenty years? Yeah.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Unfortunately, I think--and here I sympathize with the utilities and even with the Nuclear Energy Institute--is that the government has wasted most of this money because it's wasted it on a site that it knew could not really meet the standards. I was on the EPA committee for carbon-14. We used to have a different set of standards, and it was decided--we unanimously agreed, including people from the industry, that Yucca Mountain could not meet the carbon--would likely not meet the carbon-14 standards. But there were other...
FLATOW: So you--yeah. Yeah.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: ...other--and so we created...
Mr. MAKHIJANI: ..instead of junking that and going to a new repository, we created another standard. I call it the double-standard standard. So, you know...
FLATOW: So you're saying if we actually did this science right and took the politics out of it and took the time to do it, we could find a place. Would that be, it in a nutshell, what you're saying?
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Well, I think we have to marry the engineer barriers with the repository. I think we'll never be very, very sure, but it would be much better than Yucca Mountain. And to take the politics out of it, I think we have to take the Department of Energy out of it. The Department of Energy is promoting nuclear power, has a conflict of interest and has never done a very good job of the waste issue.
FLATOW: Angie Howard, why not...
Ms. HOWARD: Well...
FLATOW: ...you know, look at it again? It's not going to be open for another 10 years at least, you know.
Ms. HOWARD: Well, there's been a tremendous amount of science that's gone on at Yucca Mountain, and many other sites were evaluated before Yucca Mountain was chosen as suitable.
But I think the real issue, Ira, is how are we're going to solve our nation's energy supplies and how are we going to provide for our nation's economic growth and environmental quality. And you need all of our energy resources. Nuclear energy can--today, as we've said earlier, is supplying 20 percent of that electricity. It can continue to do that and grow that non-emitting source of power generation. At the same time, wind energy, solar energy all needs to be developed, and the use of clean coal technologies. But the important point is having a diverse energy supply and moving forward with economic development and environmental quality, and nuclear can meet those needs.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's go to Ty in Ithaca. Hi, Ty.
TY (Caller): Hi, Ira. I love the program.
FLATOW: Thank you. Go ahead.
TY: I have a comment and a question if you have time. I guess my comment is that, with all due respect to the congresswoman who spoke earlier, I, as a taxpayer, have this perception that when this thing--the legislative formation of an energy bill is like watching sharks feasting on a whale. I mean, you have lawmakers willing to sell out the environmental future of this country and the world so that a small group of people from their district or who give campaign contributions can financially benefit.
That being said, I am a political moderate, and so I--you know, I'm entertaining solutions to the energy problem. And I'm wondering why, to avoid the NIMBY factor, the `not in my back yard' factor, you don't have just, like, major federal tax incentives to those who are, you know, willing to look at their ocean view and see a massive power plant, you know, in their view.
FLATOW: So one of our producers--Annette Heist, our producer, said, `Why not--as a NIMBY thing, why not give all the people who live in'--and you can pick the radius, five, 10 miles of a nuclear power plant--`free electricity? Then maybe we'd have a competition for "put one in my back yard."' Do you think that would work? Ty, is that what you're talking about?
TY: I think that's a great idea. I mean, a lot of people are willing to live with a certain amount of, you know, problems within their area if they can financially benefit.
FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.
TY: And I think that's a very good idea. But yeah, I guess that's the more cynical part of me that is, you know, reluctant to think that America will ever have an energy bill that is thinking about the future and is thinking about protecting people in the following generation from a major environmental crisis.
FLATOW: Arjun, and then I'll go to Angie.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Yeah. You may not believe it, but once we actually did have an energy policy. It was after the first energy crisis. I was here in Washington doing the studies that led up to that policy, and it gave us a reasonably good energy future for at least a decade between the mid-'70s and the mid-'80s until energy policy was handed back to the oil companies. We had CAFE standards, we had standards for appliances, we had deregulation of electricity...
FLATOW: President Carter's...
Mr. MAKHIJANI: President Carter's...
Mr. MAKHIJANI: ...policy, yes.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: And that's the only energy policy this country has ever had. Now I think we do need new electricity supply even with efficiency, but nuclear has had 40 years to prove itself in the market and the fact is Wall Street does not like nuclear. This energy bill contains loan guarantees of up to $2 billion by the Department of Energy for a single power plant according to the Congressional Budget Office; $35.9 billion cost over the next five years.
Ms. HOWARD: That's just wrong.
TY: Can I add something real quick?
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Look, it's here, in the Congressional Budget Office, the total cost of the bill...
Ms. HOWARD: Oh, Arjun...
Mr. MAKHIJANI: ...$35.9 billion over the 2006-2010 period from appropriated funds, assuming appropriation of the necessary amounts. That's the CBO.
Ms. HOWARD: Well, that's not good. Go ahead, Arjun.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: ...(Unintelligible).
Ms. HOWARD: You have a question.
FLATOW: Go ahead. Angie, you can go ahead. Angie, you want to comment? Go ahead.
Ms. HOWARD: Well, that is not for all of nuclear we're talking about.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: No, no, that's right.
Ms. HOWARD: And he's making the reference that that is what the nuclear...
Mr. MAKHIJANI: That's the whole bill. That's the whole bill.
Ms. HOWARD: ...incentive--that was the whole bill. So I just want to make that correction.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Sure. Sure. Sure.
Ms. HOWARD: But, again, let's go back to his claim that nuclear power is not economical. Nuclear power plants today generate electricity at the lowest cost compared to coal, natural gas or oil. We also, as we look to Wall Street liking nuclear, Wall Street likes the existing nuclear plants. They have funded the sales of these plants and the consolidation of the industry, and those companies that have large nuclear are operating very well and have high financial ratings.
Ms. HOWARD: As we go forward in building new nuclear--or as we go forward in building new wind, or as we go forward in building new coal--there are federal incentives that are important for new generating facilities. And then renewables, you see long standing, and they are only being built with incentives. On the nuclear side, what we're looking for are a very limited number of incentives for a very few plants, a limited amount that should prove that the new licensing process will actually go forward as has been designed on paper. So we feel that the new nuclear plants that are on the design boards today, and will be ripe for building in the next decade, will come in at a cost that is economical with our other alternatives that we're facing in the future.
FLATOW: Ty, thanks for calling.
TY: Thank you.
FLATOW: But the nuclear energy industry has a huge problem, and it's historical. If you look back on the history of nuclear power plants, let's say--for example, the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire was supposed to cost $850 million; it ended up costing $7 billion.
Ms. HOWARD: That's the reason that the 1992 Energy Policy Act that was--addressed the licensing of nuclear facilities, and what we are doing today is prelicensing the new designs, so the design certification has been approved. We would be looking at prelicensing the sites. It's a process called early site permitting, and three plants today are going forward and testing out that process and getting permits for early sites. And the third...
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. One of the advantages--I'm sorry. One of the advantages...
Ms. HOWARD: Well, let me just finish...
FLATOW: Go ahead. I'm sorry. Yes.
Ms. HOWARD: The third component is to develop a combined construction and operating license. And there are consortiums of companies that are going forward and testing that part of the licensing, so that you go through all of the licensing, all of the certifications, before you start spending money.
Ms. HOWARD: Yes, some of the existing plants today came in and cost a lot more than they were anticipated, but that's because the licenses were extended, the periods of time for construction were extended because we had an energy downturn in this country. Today, we're looking at doing all of the licensing up front so that the actual construction time will be in the four to five years like we do that in other countries around the world and the plant can then go into operation and start earning a return. You know...
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What they do in other countries, especially in France, though, is that they have one design that everybody builds. You don't have handmade designs for every single nuclear plant as individual and unique as they are in this country. Are you...
Ms. HOWARD: And you won't in the future in this country. We're looking at two designs that are being certified right now.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: The French nuclear industry was created by governmental fiat with a monopoly electricity utility that's 100-percent owned by the federal government. And they have a pretty expensive electricity. They paid a price for it. Sixty percent of the French people would like to get out of nuclear power but they don't know how because they're stuck with it.
Now, you know, the situation in this country is that nuclear power has had governmental support, and I say, `OK, if you want to build a nuclear power plant, go to the marketplace and raise the money and let the government do its job and regulate the building of those things to see that they're safe.'
Now what has happened in this prelicensing process--I was down in Virginia for the hearing that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission held. And when we looked at the environmental impact statement for this site, it had been wholesale copied by the contractor. There was wholesale plagiarism in this environmental impact statement from what the con--from what the power company had submitted to the government's contractor, and they just took material from the disk and copied it and issued it under the imprimatur of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I don't think that's the proper lesson to have learned from Three Mile Island. I think the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is forgetting. I think the nuclear industry should go to the marketplace and not come to Washington for handouts.
I think the wind energy industry is also ready to be in the marketplace. The thing the wind energy industry doesn't have today, and what deregulation did not create in the '70s, is a regulatory infrastructure to ensure that investors would have a return on investment from North Dakota and Texas if they built--How could they even get the electricity out to Boston and New York and San Francisco? That economic question is not being addressed in the energy bill, and I think it's the most important energy independence component that should be front stage because wind energy today is cheaper than nuclear and it's cheaper than gas. It's more or less competitive with coal, but coal has carbon dioxide emissions. And we're not even talking about how to get the energy out of North Dakota and South Dakota into the cities; we're not talking about it.
FLATOW: Yeah, we don't have a grid that runs...
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Sorry?
FLATOW: Yeah, we don't have a grid that runs up there.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: That is the issue.
FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody this is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow, with Angie Howard and Arjun Makhijani.
Angie, did you want to jump in there?
Ms. HOWARD: Well, wind is not cheaper than nuclear. However, wind, while it's important to develop our renewable energy...
FLATOW: Can you give us a comparison? Give us a comparison of the prices, Angie.
Ms. HOWARD: Wind is about $3.80 per megawatt, and nuclear is about $1.70.
FLATOW: What does that count per kilowatt hour?
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Well, this nuclear cost doesn't include the capital costs of nuclear, does it?
Ms. HOWARD: Right. Well--and...
Mr. MAKHIJANI: And you're comparing something that includes a capital cost of wind with something that doesn't?
Ms. HOWARD: We're comparing operating costs. We're comparing operating costs and operating costs. That's what you're compare.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Operating costs of wind energy are about 1/2 a cent a kilowatt hour, and the operating costs of nuclear are about 2 cents. Those are the numbers.
Ms. HOWARD: If you look at just operating. The other aspect...
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Just operating.
Ms. HOWARD: ...of wind is that it's not reliable.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Well...
Ms. HOWARD: And reliability is a very important thing. Wind is important to develop. It's very important to develop. But wind energy cannot supply the subway system of New York, the wind energy cannot supply the air conditioning for the city and it can--while it can supply some important needs, nuclear energy is base load that provides energy to our cities and to our industries that keeps the economy running, and it does so without producing greenhouse gases and other pollutants.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: You produce a lot of liabilities with nuclear. It's true that nuclear and wind both don't have carbon dioxide emission, but with nuclear you've got proliferation issues. Why are we arguing about Iran? What will it take to solve the global warming problem with nuclear? I've done the calculation. We have to solve the global warming problem globally. It will take 2,000 to 3,000 nuclear power plants of 1,000 megawatts each over the next 50 years. That's one power plant a week every week for 50 years. It's complete--it doesn't make sense to go in that direction. We will need a technological infrastructure for nuclear where everybody and his brother will know nuclear technology. Is that the kind of world that we want to live in?
Ms. HOWARD: It's important that everyone understand the safe aspects of nuclear technology. It's safe and it's reliable and it's clean.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Would we want to build a reactor a week for 50 years to solve the global warming problem instead of wind turbines? I don't think so.
Ms. HOWARD: Well, you would have to build about four times as many wind turbines to do that. And you're talking about a terrific land area, land area that's not available, and you're talking about a terrific transportation issue. Just to keep the same--if you meet the renewable portfolio standards that are proposed in New England, and to do that with--keeping the existing nuclear plants online, and looking at a 15-percent renewable portfolio standard, where renewable's about 1 percent right now, you would have to build a Cape May wind project--that's the wind project that's proposed off of Cape Cod--one of those a year.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Yeah, that's just one a year. Now Denmark...
Ms. HOWARD: One a year. And then that is a huge amount of land area that's taking up, as well as the ongoing concerns that you're finding against wind projects around the country.
FLATOW: Well, if you could put the wind projects out where there is a lot of land and then put what we call a power line in, that would, you know, transport it to other places. Then you would have the room.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Yes. Ira...
Ms. HOWARD: Well, you'd have too many losses in that distance of transportation.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: No, I don't think so. You know, the Europeans have gone for wind energy. The Europeans built, in 2003, as much wind energy as the United States has cumulatively involved, installed, about 5,000 megawatts. Denmark gets about 20 percent of their electricity from wind, and we get about 2 percent.
Ms. HOWARD: Well, our countries are a big difference there, too.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: I'm an electrical engineer--well, no, it's a percentage question.
Ms. HOWARD: And economies. And economies.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: What's the percentage on your grid? The Europeans have made an engineering study of generating wind in the Sahara and transporting it by an 800-kilovolt DC line to Europe. These are not mysterious technologies; they're extremely well-known. The farmers--you can farm right up to the wind turbine. It doesn't take a lot of land area. And you can graze cows right up to the wind turbine. Farmers love wind turbines because they get--you know, they supplement their farm income with something really reliable, the royalty from wind in North Dakota.
Ms. HOWARD: Well, I don't think we need to continue arguing about a source of generation, while it's important, is a limited support of generation, a supply of generation. What I think we have to do is look at the totality of our energy needs, our economy needs and our environmental needs and have a diversity, and also look at how we can provide electricity from an energy source such as nuclear so that it takes on--and it relieves the burden of our fossil fuels so that they can be devoted...
Ms. HOWARD: ...to other important sources.
FLATOW: All right. We...
Ms. HOWARD: We've lost a lot of the chemical industry in the last few years because of the high cost of natural gas.
FLATOW: I've got to run. I've run out of time. We will pick this up again. We have talked about this very much over the last year and a half. So I want to thank Angie Howard, executive president at the Nuclear Energy Institute, and Arjun Makhijani, who is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland.
Thank you all for taking the time to be with us.
Ms. HOWARD: Thank you.
Mr. MAKHIJANI: Thank you so much.
FLATOW: We've run out of time on this edition of SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.