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Some Environmentalists Warming Up to Nuclear Power
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Some Environmentalists Warming Up to Nuclear Power

Environment

IRA FLATOW, host:

Last week, President Bush went to Pennsylvania to promote his view that more nuclear power plants are the answer to global warming, because they don't release greenhouse gasses. Last year, Congress authorized $13 billion to help utilities build new reactors in the United States, and there are more going up in other countries around the world.

Some environmentalists, who had previously opposed nuclear power, have supported the nuclear option reasoning that given the two choices, rampant global warming or rising ocean levels, versus the hazards posed by the handling and storage of nuclear materials, that nuclear power is the lesser of two evils.

This hour, as we continue our series on alternative energies, we're going to look at this continuing tug-of-war over nuclear power. Nuclear designers say they can build safer nuclear reactors with new technology that won't allow the core to melt down as the one at Three Mile Island did 26 years ago, effectively stopping the nuclear power industry in this country; or the way the Chernobyl disaster, where we had the basically the core just burning up and releasing all that nuclear waste into the atmosphere.

Opponents disagree, pointing to flaws in nuclear design and the radioactive waste problem that has not yet been solved ala Yucca Mountain. What do you think? Has nuclear power really changed? Do we really need more of it? Has nuclear power turned green? Here to debate the issues are my three guests, veteran observers of the nuclear power technology and politics of it. Dr. Thomas Cochran. Cochran is Director of a Nuclear Program at the National Resources Defense Council, the NRDC. Dr. Cochran holds the Wade Greene Chair for Nuclear Policy. He won numerous awards for his work in clarifying questions about nuclear weapons and nuclear power for the public, and he joins us today from our studios in Washington D.C.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. THOMAS COCHRAN (Director, Nuclear Program, Natural Resources Defense Council): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. My next guest is Dr. Andrew Kadak. He is professor of nuclear engineering at MIT. Dr. Kadak is part of an international consortium that is designing a new kind of nuclear reactor. It's called a pebble bed reactor. We're going to be talking about whether that offers a solution to some people minds. And the first two are being built in South Africa and in China. Dr. Kadak joins us from MIT. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Kadak.

Dr. ANDREW KADAK: (Professor of Nuclear Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Hello.

FLATOW: Hello. Dr. Kevin Crowley is a geologist and Director of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board at the National Academies of Science. He studied one of the biggest headaches nuclear power gives us, and that is what to do with radioactive waste those plants produce. Dr. Crowley joins us from our NPR studios in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Crowley.

Dr. KEVIN CROWLEY (Director of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board, National Academies of Science): It's a pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Our number is 1-800-989-8255 if you'd like to talk about nuclear power. 1-800-989-8255. Surf over to our website, it's sciencefriday.com; where we have all kinds of links, and also where you could send us e-mail there.

Dr. Cochran you are - you have been dead set against nuclear power for years, and you're still dead set against it. Give us your reasoning on that?

Dr. COCHRAN: Well, you're wrong on that point, but I'll give you my reasoning.

FLATOW: (Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. COCHRAN: The rub for nuclear power today, particularly in the United States, is that it's uneconomical compared to alternative energy sources for producing electricity.

There was a very fine study done by Andy's colleagues at MIT, published in late 2003, that concluded that just looked at the cost of the nuclear plant in the U.S. versus a coal plant or a gas fired plant. And that study concluded that nuclear plants were about 60 percent more expensive than coal or gas, assuming moderate gas prices.

Now, that study was before this recent spike in energy prices, particularly gas prices; but the conclusions are still valid that unless some major changes occur, for example, sustained high gas prices and a severe regulation of carbon emissions from fossil plants, which would economically penalize both gas plants and coal plants. Unless a combination of things such as that occurred, nuclear would be - would remain uneconomical.

And, as a consequence, the industry, the K-Street lobbyists went up to the Hill last year, and got the $13 billion subsidy for nuclear power to build about five new plants. And that subsidy in those new plants, in my judgment, won't do anything significant for global warming. There are - were better alternatives, still are, that will impact the global warming pollution problem faster and cheaper and safer than subsidizing new nuclear plants. On a global basis, since 1988 the increase in nuclear capacity or nuclear plants worldwide has been about average about one new plant a year. And that's likely to be sustained, even though we're building a few, you know, 20 or so new plants in Asia and elsewhere, primarily in Asia and elsewhere in the world. You're also - older plants are being terminated. And so nuclear, globally, will gradually increase in its capacity over the next decade or two, and it will continue to lose market share to alternatives. And the high growth area is in renewables like wind. Globally, wind capacity is added - more wind capacity was added than nuclear last year, although the amount of electricity generated by the two technologies - by the additions would be about the same, since the capacity factor of wind is low compared to nuclear.

FLATOW: Dr. Kadak, can you tell us about this new technology? The Pebble-bed reactor. What, how is it different from the kind of nuclear reactor we're use to seeing? And why are its proponents saying it is safer and more economical?

Dr. KADAK: (Professor of nuclear engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology): You know just let me touch a bit if I could on some of Tom's comments about the economics. It's - he's quite right that the economics is going to be the driver, relative to what new technology is developed, whether it be wind, solar, nuclear or coal. One of the things that the MIT study did support and which is why, I think in part, the energy legislation that was passed in 2005 encouraged a production tax credits, among other things, to stimulate new nuclear construction in the United States. And these kinds of incentives, were in fact, supported by the MIT study. So it's not a surprise that the energy bill had them.

And when you start looking at the economics of new nuclear plants, it's all quite speculative in the sense that we haven't built one in the United States for such a long time. We really don't know what our current costs are, and those people who are promoting the construction of these plants are - believe that they can build them much cheaper than what the MIT study assumes. So, you know, the proof will be in the pudding. Now relative to the pebble-bed reactor, it is an innovative technology, in the sense that we're trying to expand the technology, from what was tested and demonstrated in Germany for 22 years, into a more modern, more highly efficient power system. We at MIT, have been working on it since - at least I have, at least - since 1998. And it offers us the potential, if we do it right - in terms of being modular, smaller units - to effectively compete with these very large nuclear power stations that cost a huge amount of money and take a very long time to build. So - but in principle, a pebble-bed reactor is simply… Imagine a cue ball, taking, containing inside, tens of thousands - or actually ten thousand, let's be precise - tiny little microspheres of uranium coated with silicon carbide that would be circulated on an online refueling kind of operation, and could be operated without refueling or shutting down for about five years. Now, as I said, the Germans have demonstrated this. And as you pointed out, the Chinese and the South Africans are in fact now in the process of licensing for construction two of these demonstration plants.

FLATOW: Let me just interrupt and say that I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Talking about nuclear power.

Andrew Kadak has the floor. How is it, for someone who is use to seeing the old rods and you know fuel rods and things, these billiard size spheres they sit in a bed? And how does it look? How does it work differently? Is it cooling water around it? What's the different technology that's here?

Dr. KADAK: No. The technology is helium, high temperature helium gas that's circulated through instead of water. And this helium gas is an inert gas, which means it doesn't get activated or corrode materials which is an attractive feature. And imagine a bubble gum machine full of big round bubble gum balls. And instead of being round, it's cylindrical and these pebbles, by gravity, are circulated and discharged from the bottom and then pneumatically re-inserted in the top.

And this is a continuous cycle and the ability - and we take that helium and we can either take the helium and put that helium to a gas turbine - which makes electricity directly; or we can process it through a heat exchange, and either make steam as the Chinese are doing, or convert that heat through another system - perhaps the helium system that we're looking at - that would also be used for electric production. And if you put this device, this intermediate heat exchanger, on the nuclear side of the plant, you're able to apply that heat to many, many different applications.

We just recently completed a study, again, that was aimed at reducing CO2 emissions from Canadian tar sands. And we've shown, quite interestingly, that the economics really work out quite well compared to burning natural gas -which is the primary fuel source.

Dr. COCHRAN: Well, Ira, this is a nice research project, but it isn't going to solve the global warming problem, because pebble-bed reactors don't show any signs of being cheaper than the conventional reactors we have here in this country. And in fact, the only utility that was supporting R&D on this reactor in the United States backed out when the CEO resigned from the company. I think I've run some numbers project, you know, following on to what the MIT study did. And I looked at what it would require just to offset two-tenths of a degree centigrade in global warming increase by building nuclear plants, and you would have to build something like - as a hypothetical scenario - 700 new plants average size to the ones in the United States over the next 45 years and run them to the end of the century. If you did that, you would need something like another 14 or so Yucca Mountain size repositories. We don't have one in the world that's operating after 50 years of this technology. You would have created, in that spent fuel, something like 10 million kilograms of plutonium. ‘Couple of few kilograms would take enough to take out lower Manhattan and do a trillion dollars worth of damage to the United States if it were (unintelligible).

Dr. KADAK: Now Tom, you're just, that's an unfair comparison and you know it. So you shouldn't go there.

Dr. COCHRAN: Well I don't think it is. You would have another 15 or so enrichment plants worldwide. We have a horrendous nonproliferation problem in Iran today because the International Safeguards Regime is incapable of safeguarding adequately.

FLATOW: Tom Cochran, I got. Alright I'm going to have to break in ‘cause we have to take a break. But we'll come back and let you guys talk about it. Also we'll talk about - we'll bring in the whole Yucca Mountain. What do we do with the waste. Let's talk about that storage issue with Kevin Crowley who'll join us. Stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break. Don't go away. (Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about nuclear power with my guests Dr. Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the NRDC; Dr. Andrew Kadak, who is professor of engineering at MIT; and also bringing in now Dr. Kevin Crowley, geologist and director of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board at the National Academies of Science. And Dr. Crowley, you've been sitting here listening. The nuclear waste problem has never gone away. We don't have a solution yet at Yucca Mountain. Where does this all stand? Is this sort of the Achilles heel?

Dr. KEVIN CROWLEY (Geologist and director of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board at the National Academies of Science): Well the nuclear waste disposal issue has been characterized by some as the elephant in the living room. In fact we've had a waste disposal problem, if you want to call it that, since the late 1950s when the first commercial nuclear reactors began operating. And we do have a short term solution to the problem, and that is basically to store it at the sites at which its generated. And so since the late 1950s, the spent fuel that has been produced by operating nuclear reactors have been stored, both in the large water-filled pools called spent fuel pools at the nuclear reactor sites.

And as those pools have begun to reach capacity, at some sites, nuclear power plant operators have taken some of the older fuel out of the pools and put that into large, heavily-shielded structures, called dry casts. And dry casts storage facilities are now beginning to be built at many plants. I think there's a general scientific consensus, and certainly the work that our organization has done for the federal government since the late 1950s would suggest, that the storage at plant sites can be carried out safely if appropriate attention is paid to managing the waste. It can be done safely for any decades.

The real issue is what do you do with this material over the long term, over the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years that it will remain radioactive? There's also a strong scientific consensus in the scientific community that the long term solution to the waste problem is by placing it in deep underground repositories, referred to as geologic repositories, of which Yucca Mountain is an example. The federal government has been working on developing a repository in the United States for many decades. And in July of 2002, the Congress directed DOE to proceed with the development of a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, so that it can construct and operate a repository at Yucca Mountain. The Department of Energy is doing that now. It recently announced a delay in its schedule.

The current plan is to submit a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of 2008, and then to begin operation of the repository, no later than 2020. At this point, we're still waiting for the Environmental Protection Agency to issue health and safety standards for Yucca Mountain. And until they do that, the Department of Energy cannot complete its license application. I should say that this is a first of a kind endeavor, and it's a very technically difficult endeavor, because the Department of Energy has to demonstrate with a high degree of confidence, that the repository that they would build and eventually close at Yucca Mountain could contain the radioactive material for very long periods of time. And it's really establishing that long-term confidence in the performance of the repository that is the challenging technical issue.

FLATOW: Has it been established?

Dr. CROWLEY: It has not been established yet.

FLATOW: I mean that's like the basis of the whole idea has not been established.

Dr. CROWLEY: Well I don't think that's correct to say. I think that there's a strong consensus in the scientific community that it's possible to establish that basis. But establishing that basis will be done a site-by-site basis. And in the license application that the Department of Energy eventually submits to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, they will have to demonstrate with a high degree of confidence that in fact the repository can contain the radioactive materials for long periods of time.

FLATOW: How many Yucca Mountains do you think? Tom Cochran said we need a lot of Yucca Mountains if we go to a nuclear you know energy society. How many Yucca Mountains would we need?

Dr. CROWLEY: Well, I think that issue is open to debate at this point. If we precede down the path that we're going down now, which is to simply put the spent fuel into a repository, Yucca Mountain, the currently legislated limit is about 70,000 metric tons. At present, we have about 55,000 metric tons of commercial spent fuel in the United States.

I should mention that about 10 percent of the Yucca Mountain capacity is reserved for defense waste. So we will soon fill up Yucca Mountain at the present rate of generation of commercial spent fuel; about 2,000 metric tons a year. However, the capacity limit at Yucca Mountain is a legislated limit, and Yucca Mountain can be expanded if Congress would choose to do that.

And some studies that have been issued recently suggest that it could be expanded by a factor of five to ten in capacity.

FLATOW: Somebody want to join, to jump in there?

Dr. KADAK: Yeah, I think that's an interesting point, because, you know, this so-called renaissance, should it happen, and if its constrained by the repository, I think Kevin's recent comment says that that's not a real constraint. And the constraint is having the repository licensed and operational. And this is what's, I think, holding back a number of utilities from proceeding forward.

FLATOW: Tom, I didn't hear you argue against the safety of these new nuclear reactors. You've argued against the economics of them. Does that mean you believe them to be safe operationally?

Dr. CHOCHRAN: I think, in the United States, today, reactors are safer than they were a couple of decades ago. We haven't had a core melt accident since Three Mile Island. We, in 2002, we had a major precursor at the Davis-Bessie plant, where there was discovered a football-sized hole had corroded in the reactor head because of lack of regulatory oversight over that reactor and utility oversight.

The - ultimately, and I imagine Andy would agree with me on this, the, whether a plant is operated safely or not will depend primarily on whether there's a good safety culture at the plant. And I think with the consolidation in the United States, the safety culture consolidation under fewer energy generating companies of the plants that are, continue to operate, I think the safety culture has improved. The industry has programs in place to trade information on safety issues and they learn more about precursors of accidents. And then new designs and new hardware.

Now, the horserace is all of those benefits versus aging of the plants and reduction in the number of personnel operating plants. But, I would say the following: that if you agree with me that it's primarily dependent safety culture, the places you ought to be concerned are in India, Russia, and in the future, China is an open question.

For example, in the United States, in the coal industry, we kill about 20 to 30 coal miners a year. In China, there are about 1,500 deaths a year. And so the question is, is their nuclear safety culture more like their coal safety culture or more like our nuclear safety culture? That's an open question.

Prof. KADAK: Let me jump, let me jump in on that one, if I could.

FLATOW: Dr. Kadak, go ahead.

Dr. KADAK: Yes, um, just on the Chinese question. And first of all, I do agree with Tom completely, that these nuclear plants, their safety really depends in large part on the safety culture. And we have seen, you know, there are many Tia Mai Tai(ph) plants that are operating in the United States quite well, quite safely. The safety culture is quite different at some of these plants.

And in China, just as an example, I, one of my consulting jobs is to serve on a senior safety oversight review board for the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Stations, and there are four 900 megawatt French reactors operating there, and they've been operating for many years. And they have brought in United States and Western experts to come in and oversee that operation. And, you know, when I first went there my sort of judgment was very much like Tom's. You know, if you look to the coal industry and that as a standard, you get really worried about it. But I can assure you that having spent almost two years, you know, two weeks a year overseeing or looking over that operation, they're quite sensitive to safety culture and they're trying to emulate - and have been successful at emulating - many of the U.S. practices, which is why we're there.

FLATOW: Would that also, does that also extend to storage of the waste, like the Yucca, their own type of Yucca Mountain, and the safety around that?

Dr. KADAK: Yeah. In fact, some American companies are shipping spent fuel from these Daya Bay reactors to their proposed geological repository on the border of the Gobi Desert. So they are not rushing to judgment. They're policy will be to reprocess the spent fuel and reuse what's useful still from the uranium and plutonium that's available, and to dispose of the waste.

So, the Chinese are not rushing into judgment on this.

FLATOW: Speaking of rushing in, I think Tom pointed out that the legislation, the billions of dollars that have been allocated are for more conventional reactors and not for the pebble bed reactor.

Dr. KADAK: That's correct. The pebble bed reactor…

FLATOW: Is that, is that - is that a mistake?

Dr. KADAK: No, I think it, from a practical standpoint, the next fleet of reactors will have to be these advanced light water reactors, which as Tom pointed out have significant improvements in overall safety system performance. And the pebble bed reactor, the first two real commercial plants are going to only be demonstrated if they come online as scheduled by 2011, 2012. So once these reactors come online, then the rest of the industry and the United States for sure can look at this and say whether or not this is something that they would like to invest in for the longer term.

FLATOW: Is that the one in South Africa, or China, that you're talking about?

Dr. KADAK: Both.

FLATOW: Both?

Dr. KADAK: Both. Each has a different application, and, you know, you know, Tom, you also asked Tom about the safety. One of the unique attributes of this reactor is that this reactor, because of its design, cannot melt down. It's just physically impossible to have happen. Yes, there can be other types of accidents that could affect this, but this very severe accident cannot occur. Which is (unintelligible).

FLATOW: But, but the graphite, the graphite might burn, correct? I mean, that's what happened at Chernobyl. The graphite burned.

Dr. KADAK: The graphite - well, there's a lot of discussion about what actually happened at Chernobyl; whether it was the graphite burning or the zirconium cladding burning. But clearly, the graphite supported the combustion, whatever fuel that was there, that was burning.

We're now doing studies at MIT and the Germans have done numerous tests on these things called air-ingress accidents, and that's the, to assess whether there is a graphite burning issue. The studies to date have indicated that it, that there is not for particular design and for this particular configuration. But, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be the ultimate arbiter on that point.

FLATOW: We're talking about nuclear power, the future of, this hour on TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR News. 800-989-8255. Let's see if we can go to Lee(ph) in DeKalb, Illinois - quickly.

LEE (Caller): Hello. I was wondering, a couple of years ago, as an under - er, in, well, I grew up in the small town that has a nuclear plant, Byron, Illinois. And in some of the videos they showed us, growing up, you know, they wanted us to think that we're going to be safe, for sure. You know, we're not going to grow up glowing in the dark. Like, I had heard the French have a method of recycling used uranium. I'm not sure if that could help alleviate the problem, or…

FLATOW: Hmm. Good question. Let me get an answer.

Dr. KADAK: Neal, the French have reprocessed the spent fuel for, oh, 20 years now. And what that basically means is they take the spent fuel, instead of as we're proposing to do in the United States, to just, putting it away or throwing it away in a repository, to chemically dissolve the fuel and make the - as I said earlier - the fuel that is like, the plutonium and the uranium, that you can put back in the reactor to ultimately burn it up. And the residual from that reprocessing operation is made into a solid glass log which is then disposed of in the repository.

The advantages of that are, A) you can still use the fuel from, that's remaining in the spent fuel, and 2) you can greatly volume reduce the waste. Now, there are a lot of concerns about proliferation and the use of reprocessing and separated plutonium, which I'm sure Tom could get at. But right now, people looking at technologies that don't allow the separation of uranium from plutonium, and to be able to still take advantage of the fuel that's still left.

Dr. CHOCHRAN: Well, there are major proliferation problems, and as you recall, the, India's first nuclear weapon was produced using plutonium from their research reactor that was supplied under the Adams peace program. And it was reprocessed in a reprocessing plant that was supposed to be part of their breeder reactor program. So the United States, under the Ford and Carter administrations, stopped commercial reprocessing in this country.

And when President Reagan tried to renew it, there was no utility interest because it was uneconomical, as it is today. So there's no economic reason to move ahead with reprocessing at this time. It's dangerous if it's pursued. And non-weapons states that of concern, such as Iran, I mean the last thing you would want to have in countries like Iran and North Korea is, are reprocessing plants and large stocks of spent nuclear power reactor fuel, because that's a quick access to nuclear weapons capability.

Dr. CROWLEY: If I could add something here, this is Kevin Crowley. The Department of Energy is proposing a new initiative called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, which is a long-term strategy for expanding nuclear power use in the United States and other countries. And as part of that strategy, they're proposing to recycle spent fuel.

And, rather than disposing of spent fuel directly in a geologic repository in the United States, dispose of the waste product vitrified high-level waste. The purported benefits of that strategy is that it would reduce the volume and long-term toxicity of the waste that would need to be disposed of in a geologic repository, and some proponents claim that it would reduce volumes by about a factor of 100.

But none of these things have been demonstrated technically, and there are some fairly high technical hurdles to implementing a program as has been proposed by DOE.

FLATOW: That, we're going to have to leave it there, because we've run out of time. But we'll come back and visit this issue, because it's certainly one that's very important. And then we'll keep covering it.

I'd like to thank Thomas Cochran, Director of the Nuclear Program at the NRDC; Andrew Kadak, Professor of Nuclear Engineering at MIT; Kevin Crowley, Director of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board at the National Academies of Sciences.

Thank you for all taking time to be with us today.

GROUP: Thanks.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

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