Imagining The U.S. Without Nuclear Power
JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
It's been nearly two weeks since reactors at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant first threatened a full meltdown. The crisis lead countries around the world to rethink their use of nuclear energy. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel last week reversed course. She imposed a moratorium on nuclear power and says she hopes to phase it out for good. In this country, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has announced a safety review of all American nuclear power reactors, but President Obama remains a supporter of nuclear power, touting it as a relatively clean energy source that will help cut down on the nation's greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, the crisis in Japan raises the question: Should this country go without nuclear power? And if it did, what would fill the gap? Later in the hour, with pressure rising across the Middle East, what's at stake in Yemen? But first, should the U.S. live without nuclear energy? Give us a call. Our number in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining me now to imagine a U.S. without nuclear power is Michael Levi. He's senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of their program on energy security and climate change. He joins us from the studio at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
Dr. MICHAEL LEVI (Council on Foreign Relations): Good to be with you.
LUDDEN: First, can you just establish for us how significant is nuclear energy in this country?
Dr. LEVI: Nuclear energy supplies roughly 20 percent of U.S. electricity, so that's a big share. It's roughly equivalent to the amount supplied by natural gas and about half of the amount supplied by coal. Their balance is made up mostly by hydro-electricity and also by renewables like wind and solar.
The one part of the economy where nuclear isn't a player is, of course, in transportation, which makes up a huge fraction of our energy demands.
LUDDEN: Right. So am I correct, 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S.?
Dr. LEVI: That's correct. One hundred and four nuclear power plants. The last one came online in 1996, but the last one to be approved for new construction was in the late 1970s.
LUDDEN: And generally speaking, where are they?
Dr. LEVI: They're all over the country, from California to New York State. In the Southeast, they are particularly dependant on them, but they are scattered throughout.
LUDDEN: And you said the last one approved was in the '70s? So I'm hearing Three Mile Island - was that kind of a big factor in our energy - nuclear policy?
Dr. LEVI: It's tricky to disentangle the pieces. Nuclear was already on its way down before Three Mile Island. Costs were going up, both to build the plants and to finance that construction. Might those costs have come down in the 1980s? Perhaps. We'll never know because Three Mile Island really killed off nuclear, and killed off public appetite for nuclear, while cost was already doing it in.
And that's going to be a question now again. We've still not resolved the cost question. So if we sort out the safety side, we still don't know whether people will want to build these.
LUDDEN: But now the Bush administration had hoped to increase use of nuclear power and President Obama has invested funds to expand it further. Tell us about that.
Dr. LEVI: There has been growing interest in nuclear power across the political spectrum. Republicans have traditionally been enthusiastic about nuclear and President Bush's position reflects that. Democrats have become increasingly positive toward nuclear because of their concern about climate change. We have a variety of options, of possibilities down the road, for zero carbon, zero emissions generation. But right now nuclear is the only one that's established at scale and at a cost comparable to fossil fuels.
And so President Obama, along with a lot of other moderate Democrats, has turned to nuclear as a significant part of their climate change strategy. I don't see these people as being particularly enthusiastic about nuclear, but they've increasingly come to be able to live with it.
LUDDEN: And 8.3 billion in funds just last year for two reactors in Georgia. Is that correct? What's...
Dr. LEVI: So the U.S. government provides support for nuclear power in a variety of ways. The most prominent is a backstop on insuring the reactors and loan guarantees that provide some insulation from risk in financing these plants. There's so much risk in construction and cost escalation, but also in regulatory challenges and in public approval, that in order at least to get a few plants out there, the government decided that it needed to provide these backstops.
The idea was to demonstrate that plants could be built and then to take off the training wheels, as it were, and allow the industry to grow on its own. But there are a variety of other supports. Nuclear is eligible for a small but non-trivial tax credit for production for the first eight years that the plant operates. And there are other pieces, particularly on the research and development side, in helping develop next generation technologies that might be safer and more resistant to nuclear proliferation.
LUDDEN: So how many new plants then are kind of in the works, and where would they be built if that happens?
Dr. LEVI: There are roughly a couple dozen plants that have been proposed, at least on paper. There are none that are really in the - in the substantial stages of construction yet. They're still being pulled together. The proposals extend across the country. I can't list them off for you. But right now the fundamental question facing all of these, aside from the safety issue that's come up recently, is cost.
Two things were driving nuclear as of a few years ago - high natural gas prices and the prospect of climate legislation that would have pushed generation away from coal. Now you have natural gas prices that have cratered, so gas is the cheap alternative and climate legislation has moved to the back burner, which means that gas and coal in particular are much less likely to be penalized in the near term.
It's a perfect storm against nuclear right now.
LUDDEN: Huh. Interesting. Now, you wrote for Slate this week. You asked about what phasing out nuclear energy would mean for the U.S., but you started by pointing out some things that would not change dramatically, and the first of that being electricity prices. Why is that?
Dr. LEVI: If we phase out nuclear for the United States over an extended period of time, we would be replacing it with generation that's not any more expensive. Now, nuclear that is already established and already out there is relatively cheap. What costs money is building the plants. The fuel is relatively inexpensive. So if you switch very rapidly, you're taking something that's close to free and replacing it with something that costs money.
But over time you replace it with other generation as nuclear - as established nuclear plants become more expensive to operate and you don't have a big change. Now, if we wiped out the U.S. nuclear capacity overnight, yes, rates would go way up, in particular in order to cut demand. That's not the kind of thing that any policy maker is considering. So when we look at nuclear, electricity prices are not the are not the crux on which we should be basing our decisions.
LUDDEN: Okay. One thing that people do talk about is the environment, the trade-off of carbon emissions and so forth. Let's bring someone else in. Frank Zeman is a professor in the School of Engineering and Computing Science at the New York Institute of Technology. He's an expert in carbon management, energy management and environmental engineering, and he joins us now by phone from Kingston, Ontario. Welcome to you.
Dr. FRANK ZEMAN (New York Institute of Technology): Welcome. Thank you very much.
LUDDEN: So proponents of nuclear power will say it's an important part of, you know, reducing our carbon footprint and reliance on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. And some say it would even be impossible to meet energy needs without - and reduce carbons emissions without nuclear power. Do you agree, and what would the impact be on greenhouse gas emissions if we scale back the nuclear power?
Dr. ZEMAN: Well, I don't agree that it would be impossible. As was stated by the other speaker, it's a big chunk of our existing power supply - in fact, two-thirds of our non-CO2-emitting power supply. So it's not impossible, but it would have to be done as, as he said, gradually and phasing in a lot of renewable capacity.
LUDDEN: What would - if we had no nuclear power anymore in the U.S., 20 percent of out electricity no longer came from nuclear power, how would that impact carbon emissions?
Dr. ZEMAN: Well, depends what you replace it with. Right now we have a huge excess of natural gas generating capacity. In fact, the capacity factor, which is really how much a natural gas plant is used, on average in the States is somewhere around 22 percent. So that means we have this large amount of excess capacity - more than enough to make up for the current production of nuclear power.
So the emissions would go up somewhere between five to six percent for the U.S. economy as a whole if we replaced all of nuclear with natural gas. So it wouldn't be a big emissions increase. The question is, can you find that gas and how much do you have to pay for it?
LUDDEN: OK. And so would it impact global - I mean, anything that we can say would impact global climate change? Or is that just impossible to really guess?
Dr. ZEMAN: Well, any emission impacts climate change. But when the U.S. is producing roughly six billion metric tons a year, adding, you know, 322 more isn't going to really make a big deal.
LUDDEN: OK, Michael Levi?
Dr. LEVI: If we move along our current course when it comes to greenhouse gas generation, frankly, this change on the margin with nuclear would be quite inconsequential. The bigger question is if we decide to take a serious go at reducing our emissions, will we need to rely on nuclear? And that's an open question right now. The nuclear, like I said before, is the only near-zero carbon source of electricity that's being demonstrated at scale. We have, and at a reasonable price, we have possible alternative options. We have renewables if we can develop the systems for storage and if we can get the costs down. We may have carbon capture and sequestration, where we take the emissions from coal and gas and bury them underground.
Those may materialize at a reasonable cost and at a reasonable scale. They may not. And so we can't constantly predict whether we will need nuclear in order to meet aggressive greenhouse gas reduction objectives 10, 20, 30 years down the road.
LUDDEN: Frank Zeman, what about - you know, existing capacity could not then pick up the slack?
Dr. ZEMAN: Our existing renewable capacity, you mean?
Dr. ZEMAN: No, we don't have - I mean, wind power is the main sort of - what people think of as renewable on the market. And it's only one-third of the nameplate capacity of nuclear power. And then its capacity factor - because the wind doesn't blow all the time - is much, much lower than a nuclear plant, which runs virtually all the time.
So you could do it but you'd have to increase our wind power by almost a factor 20 in capacity to do that.
LUDDEN: All right. We're talking with Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations and Frank Zeman with the New York Institute of Technology. And we'll take your calls as well. Should the U.S. phase out nuclear power? What would replace it? We'll get to more of your calls. 800-989-8255, or you can send us an email, email@example.com. I'm Jennifer Ludden and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington.
Workers at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan made progress today in bringing the damaged reactors under control. The lights are back on in the control room of unit number one. Engineers can now see what needs to be fixed. But the cooling pumps are still not working and two people at the plant were hurt when they walked in radioactive material. Both were being treated at a hospital.
The ongoing crisis in Japan has made many countries rethink their use of nuclear power. Switzerland and Taiwan are looking into reducing their reliance on nuclear power and ramping up renewable energy from sources like wind and solar.
We'll talk more about that in a moment. Should the U.S. live without nuclear energy? Give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Or join the conversation at our website. Go to NPR.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are Michael Levi, director of the Council on Foreign Relations Program on Energy Security and Climate Change. He also wrote the book "On Nuclear Terrorism." And Frank Zeman, an expert in carbon management - energy management and renewable energy. He directs the New York Institute of Technology's Center for Metropolitan Sustainability.
Michael Levi, I just want to ask you about some of the other countries that have been rethinking their policy. Germany really has taken this very seriously and made quite a shift in its policy. Tell us about that.
Dr. LEVI: There was already an alignment of political forces in Germany pushing things away from nuclear power. Germany has swung back and forth in its policy toward nuclear power over the years. That can be explained in substantial part because it has a Green Party that carries a lot of political weight, particularly given its peculiar parliamentary system. And so the chancellor was in some ways looking for an opportunity to move in a political season away from nuclear, and this provided her with an opportunity.
You've seen in contrast with that, in France the public is generally pro-nuclear and the alternative options are quite limited because France already relies on nuclear for 80 percent of its electricity. There hasn't been a significant change and you wouldn't expect there to be one.
LUDDEN: And why - I'm just curious why France does rely on it so much. At what point was that decision made and was there not much opposition to it?
Dr. LEVI: I actually don't have a good answer for you on that. But the reason that France has been able to build that much nuclear is because it's essentially a state-run enterprise. So the risks and costs are socialized. You don't have the same problems of uncertainty and regulatory issues and financial issues that you do in this country.
It's also been part of a broader industrial strategy. France is not into this only for domestic electricity production but also for exports of nuclear technology.
LUDDEN: All right. Do you see other countries out there where some serious rethinking is happening and could actually change where policy really could change?
Dr. LEVI: Well, clearly we'll watch Japan. Japan has other things to focus on right now. There are places where people will take another look at their regulatory systems. China has a pause on new approvals in order to revisit its regulatory system. I'm sure India will take a look, and nuclear is politically controversial in India.
One place I'll be interested in watching is the UK, where there is a governing coalition between the - essentially between the right the liberal left. One of the key points of disagreement when they entered that coalition was over the future of nuclear power. They agreed to disagree. It will be interesting to see whether they can continue to do that.
LUDDEN: All right. Let's bring some callers in. Nat is on the line from Buffalo, New York. Hi, Nat.
NAT (Caller): Hi, how are you?
LUDDEN: Go right ahead. Good. Go right ahead.
NAT: OK. Well, I think, environmentally speaking, phasing out nuclear energy would be very dangerous for us, where I feel that nuclear plants should(ph) provide us with carbon-free energy, especially in the short term, while we, you know, spend more time and time money putting research and development into making solar more efficient and cost effective, especially on the individual scale, where people can buy it, put it in their home and kind of go off-grid.
You know, the U.S. has one of the largest Kraytons, I think, on the planet and stability and safety-wise, you know, we could place these nuclear plants in areas where, you know, they're not on a faultline or at risk of tsunami flooding. I just think it would be very irresponsible for us and hysterically wrong to phase out a nuclear program in the U.S.
LUDDEN: All right. Thanks for the call. Frank Zeman, would you agree with that? Or...
Dr. ZEMAN: Well, I think it's he's - the caller is correct. It's always wrong to act in hysterics, but I don't think it's wrong to phase it out on the sense of replacing it with renewables because it is in fact only 20 percent of our power. Even though that's a large number, we do have the natural gas backup existing and we do have the land mass to produce - wind essentially is the only thing that's near market.
So I don't think it's wrong to consider phasing it out because these plants are getting old, and even if we started to full bore construct nuclear plants, could we keep up with the pace that the old ones have to be decommissioned?
And where's the waste going to go? Nobody's answered that question.
LUDDEN: Right. Waste is a big question. Before we get to waste, is there an age limit on these plants? I mean, what's their lifespan?
Dr. ZEMAN: I don't know. That's a tough question. I mean, the plant in Japan was 40 years old, to my knowledge, and as Mr. Levi said, the last plant commissioned in the States was in the '70s, so you're approaching that limit. But concrete itself, roughly speaking, is about 60 years. So what happens to the concrete?
LUDDEN: Is there a 60-year-old plant in the world, in the U.S.?
Dr. ZEMAN: Sorry?
LUDDEN: Is there a 60-year-old nuclear plant anywhere that we know? We don't have a precedent for this?
Dr. ZEMAN: I can't answer that question. I don't know.
LUDDEN: All right. Let me ask you then about the waste. Where does the waste go and how much is that a factor in figuring out what to do next? Either one of you can go ahead.
Dr. LEVI: I can quickly address the lifetime issue.
Dr. LEVI: Plants are initially licensed for 40 years. They then apply for extensions on 20-year periods. So far roughly half of the operating reactors in the United States have been re-licensed for another 20 years. And analysts tend to assume - or have tended to assume that after 60 years these plants might actually be re-licensed for 20 years more. The lifetime matters a lot because a power plant, a nuclear plant, is very expensive to build. So the longer period of time you can spread that capital cost over, the lower the average price of electricity, the more competitive the plant.
With age comes some other issues. There's a design issue. Newer designs tend to be better and safer. But there are also structural issues, and whatever the lifetime of concrete is in a normal situation, you also have exposure to radiation and to other corrosive chemicals that cause concerns and that are addressed in the re-licensing process.
Right now with waste we do have a big issue. We have waste basically stored onsite in cooling pools like has been the case in Japan. And a lot of the attention in Japan has been focused on the safety of those spent fuel pools. We have a stalled debate on a long-term repository. Yucca Mountain was supposed to be the destination but it has been consistently blocked. In the interim we do have a prudent, sensible step we can take. We can rearrange the pools in order to make accidents less likely. And after a short period of cooling we can move spent fuel into what's called dry cast storage above ground, where fires are less likely and are easier to put out. That's been recommended for several years. It's been resisted. It is a relatively inexpensive step that we could take in the near term that has been done elsewhere in order to improve safety and provide at least a medium-term way of addressing the waste challenge.
LUDDEN: Frank Zeman, what about - are you confident in long-term plans for dealing with waste?
Dr. ZEMAN: Well, I don't doubt that geologically you can find a place that's relatively stable. Nothing is perfect and I think that's where the risk comes in. Even if the chance of something going wrong is infinitesimal, people are going to feel uncomfortable with it. Keeping things onsite is an interesting option because what do you do with the reactor if it's radioactive itself? If you're going to have to entomb the reactor and you can't get the rods off-site because nobody wants them there, what about leaving them just on the site itself, creating a giant tomb like they did at Chernobyl?
LUDDEN: All right. Let's bring another caller in. Michael is in Hermosa, South Dakota. Go right ahead.
MICHAEL (Caller): Hello. I have a two-part question. First, about the environmental costs of mining uranium, and then also about how much fuel is available in the world, especially compared with the amount of fuel in solar and wind.
LUDDEN: So you want to know cost to the consumer?
MICHAEL: No, the environmental costs of mining uranium.
LUDDEN: OK. Frank? And then Michael. Go right ahead.
Dr. ZEMAN: Oh, well, the environmental costs with uranium mining really have to do with two things. One, tailings disposal, and tailings is the sort of leftover material after you get the ore out. And modern mines tend to build dams to keep them keep the tailing wet so that they don't fly around in the dust. And the second is at the shaft. Do you have water leaking into the shaft and then flowing out?
So I mean, mining isn't perfect and you tend to make a big mess. That's why they tend to be in far-flung places. So it's a very localized cost in some ways, but it adds up, is what I would say.
LUDDEN: And Michael Levi, is there plenty of uranium out there?
Dr. LEVI: There is plenty of uranium out there. Look, we're going to run out of uranium sooner than we run out of the sun and the wind. But at current plans we are going to have economical resources of uranium for many decades. And we can move to recycling techniques which are unwise right now, by which might make sense considerably further down the road if we have limited resources.
Obviously the amount available at a reasonable price will depend on how quickly the nuclear fleet grows. But for all plausible growth scenarios, people are not concerned about hitting economic limits on recoverable uranium supplies.
LUDDEN: Okay, Michael. Thanks for the call. Terry is in Robbins, Tennessee. Go right ahead.
TERRY (Caller): Thank you, Jennifer and your guests. How many wind turbines could you build for the price of one nuclear power plant? Also wind turbines and solar panels. And how much faster can they be online versus the nuclear plant? And there's a lot of costs involved in nuclear that's never been touched.
LUDDEN: Frank Zeman.
Dr. ZEMAN: Well, it's a trick question, I think, because nobody actually knows what nuclear power costs, because the government - we all know how much waste disposal is going to cost yet; the government provides insurance at a discount. So - I mean, to get an actual cost for nuclear would be, I think, at best a guess at this point, so we don't really know.
I mean, the wind turbines have the - and solar panels have the advantage of being mass produced. So you can build a factor that produces parts and they're shipped to the site. So I think it's doable. The cost - you know, solar panels tend to be, you know, three to four times the cost of wind. So it would probably be smarter to start with wind, but it's certainly doable. It's really above what people want to pay for and whether they want to see their power.
The nice thing about nuclear power is you have a giant facility producing a gigawatt of electricity instead of 1,000 one-megawatt wind turbines on the landscape. So it's about what people want to see in some parts.
LUDDEN: Hmm. Michael Levi?
Dr. LEVI: It's essentially impossible to do a head-to-head comparison, not necessarily for the reasons that Frank identifies, but because nuclear provides a different sort of power service from wind and solar. Nuclear provides what we call base load power, that's that consistent, steady level of power that you need at all times. Wind and solar provide what we call peeking power. So they provide inconsistent power that, if well-designed, delivers energy at times when demand is higher. So there's this matching to load that makes comparison very difficult.
You generally compare wind and solar with natural gas, which is also able to vary with time. And right now wind is not competitive with gas at its current price. But if gas got a little bit more expensive, there might be a more competitive situation. And solar is simply uncompetitive with other resources.
There are some solar technologies that might deliver competitive power with nuclear well down the road. We talked about something called solar thermal that allows you to smooth out that power delivery over time.
And if we could add storage, we might change the equation too. But we have no idea how expensive that storage would be, which makes it essentially impossible for us to predict the net price.
LUDDEN: All right. Terry...
Dr. ZEMAN: I would just jump in there quickly and say you could actually consider a wind system with 100 percent gas backup. And that would allow you to provide a base load-type scenario, especially given the fact that nuclear is only a fifth of our power. So it's a large chunk again. I don't want to underestimate the size of the nuclear power. But you could conceivably price out a gas backup...
LUDDEN: All right. Terry...
Dr. ZEMAN: ...you can have this capacity.
LUDDEN: ...thanks for that phone call. We're talking about whether the U.S. should reduce its use of nuclear power. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
We've got an email from Steven in San Rafael, California, who asks: Besides the waste, another issue I never hear discussed is the amount of cooling water these plants use and the hot water they emit back to the environment. Is this an environmental problem, especially if the plant uses fresh water? Michael or Frank?
Dr. LEVI: It's certainly part of the equation. One of the challenges you've seen recently is that on particularly hot days, when electricity demand happens to be high, that's when the thresholds you need to set for discharge of hot water from nuclear plants are the strictest, because bodies of water are already close to the thresholds that you don't want to cross. So certainly hot water discharge is part of it. But as many people have pointed out, there are environmental risks associated with all conventional forms of electricity generation, whether it's coal, natural gas, hydro or nuclear. You need to decide which poison you want to pick.
LUDDEN: All right. We've got a caller from Cleveland, Ohio. Hi there, Jeff.
JEFF (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. I served in the nuclear navy in the '70s. I lived on top of two reactors for four years, had no problems with it whatsoever. In the military environment, nuclear power is extremely safe. The moment you make it part of the profit equation, the safety goes out the window. And we can see that in the Japanese reactors, in that the corporation that owns those reactors hesitated to use salt water to immediately cool them down because they feared damaging their equipment permanently.
JEFF: You can't trust a corporation to do this.
LUDDEN: Well, thanks for the call there. Frank Zeman, how about that idea?
Dr. ZEMAN: Well, again, I would go back to saying nuclear is not all that corporate in the sense that the corporations just would never take this on on their own and would never seek insurance on the competitive markets for this type of thing. So...
LUDDEN: So all the ones in the United States are - I don't even know this -government administered?
Dr. ZEMAN: No. They're run by corporations, but the corporations run them. They don't build them and insure them, and they haven't - the liability for the waste disposal isn't on their books, as far as I know.
LUDDEN: Huh. Okay.
Dr. LEVI: The corporations pay into a fund for waste disposal. The whole insurance backup question is very complicated. You have a similar situation for offshore drilling. There are two separate issues. One is whether you can price the risk and it seems that you can't. The other is whether there's any insurance company big enough to absorb the blow if something bad happens. If you have a very low probability, very high consequence event, it's almost always impossible for private actor - for private insurance companies to insure that, even if the net risk - probability times consequences - is quite low. So there's potentially a legitimate role for the government there that shouldn't be considered a subsidy, as long as the government charges the right amount to those companies for providing that extra insurance backstop itself.
LUDDEN: All right. We just have a few seconds left, but let's wrap up. I'd like to ask each of you, what do you think, if anything - what impact will the Japan crisis have on our own nuclear policy here? Frank Zeman?
Dr. ZEMAN: I'm not sure it'll have much. I think it'll slow things down, and everybody will be more cautious and review everything. But trying to get a plant built in the U.S., even before this happened was going to be a really big challenge, and I don't think it's really going to change much. It'll delay it a bit.
LUDDEN: Michael Levi?
Dr. LEVI: Well, first, let's see what actually happens in Japan. This isn't over yet. And the exact consequences will certainly have an impact on how people in the United States react. If we look at the polls a year from now, I wouldn't be surprised if public opinion had shifted, but not all that much. The question will be, what happens to those moderates who had become accepting of nuclear power because of the climate benefits?
LUDDEN: All right.
Dr. LEVI: Will they stick with that position or change?
LUDDEN: Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Frank Zeman at the New York Institute of Technology, thanks so much.
Coming up, what's at stake in Yemen.
I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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