Will Nuclear Power Be Part Of A Climate Solution? Some environmentalists believe building more nuclear power plants today is the best way to combat climate change while solar and other renewable energy sources mature. Ira Flatow and experts discuss the economic and engineering hurdles to nuclear development in the U.S.
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Will Nuclear Power Be Part Of A Climate Solution?

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Will Nuclear Power Be Part Of A Climate Solution?

Will Nuclear Power Be Part Of A Climate Solution?

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

About a month ago, we had on, you might remember, John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor, came on the show to talk about some of the science priorities for the new administration, and during that conversation, we talked about what he thought of investing in nuclear power and building new generating facilities, and here's what he said.

Mr. JOHN HOLDREN (Presidential Science Advisor): Well I think first of all, yes we should be investing in nuclear energy. We should be investing in approaches to addressing the difficulties that have prevented us from expanding nuclear energy to a greater extent up until now. We should be doing research that is addressed at making nuclear energy more cost-effective. We should be doing research to address the problem of how we manage the radioactive waste. We should be doing more research to reduce the linkages between nuclear energy and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

I do think that if we could get an expanded contribution from nuclear energy, it would be a tremendous help in addressing the climate change challenge.

FLATOW: That was John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor, talking about how he sees the future of nuclear energy and nuclear power, all about if we should, if we could, we should do these things, all these ifs and shoulds, but that also is sort of what some environmentalists have been saying now, too, a big break from the era of protest marches and chants of no nukes, a change of heart that comes at a time with a possibly more serious threat of climate change.

So for the rest of the hour, we're going to talk about the pros and cons of embracing nuclear power once again here in the U.S. and some of the technical hurdles, what technologies are out there, what kinds of new reactors might we see out there, some of the economic challenges in the industry, that the industry is facing today.

Where - other ideas. Where will they store the waste? What happened to Yucca Mountain? The administration has sort of taken that off the table. Do new reactor designs make a nuclear power plant safer and more efficient than the old ones, or what about the pricing? Are these new power plants just going to be going up and up and up in price and pricing themselves out of the market?

So if you'd like to talk about the future of nuclear energy, our number is 1-800-989-8255. Also you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and also in Second Life, you can find us in Second Life at Science Friday island.

Let me now introduce my guests. Thomas Cochran is the director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington and the Wade Greene Chair for Nuclear Policy there. He joins us from NPR's Washington bureau. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. THOMAS COCHRAN (Nuclear Physicist Senior Scientist, Nuclear Program; Wade Greene Chair for Nuclear Policy, Natural Resources Defense Council): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Ernest Moniz is the former undersecretary for the Department of Energy. He's also professor of physics and engineering systems and director of the Energy Initiative at MIT in Cambridge. He joins us over the phone. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Moniz.

Dr. ERNEST MONIZ (Former Undersecretary, Department of Energy; Director, Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems, Energy Initiative, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Thank you, Ira, it's a pleasure.

FLATOW: Stewart Brand is the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. He's also president of the Long Now Foundation and co-founder of the Global Business Network in Sausalito, California. He joins us today by phone. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. STEWART BRAND (President, Long Now Foundation; Co-founder, Global Business Network): Greetings to you.

FLATOW: Let me ask you, let me react, get your reactions to the clip that I played there from John Holdren. Dr. Moniz, from what Holdren was saying, it sounds like we need more and more and more research into all these things, and we have no real solutions on the table right now. Would that be a fair assessment?

Dr. MONIZ: Well, I think I would be a bit cautious on the statement of no solutions, but John Holdren, I think, was right on in talking about the significant challenge we face in addressing climate-change risks, and I would agree with him that we will need multiple technologies that avoid carbon emissions, and I think nuclear power will almost certainly have to be one of those, along with renewables in particular and perhaps carbon sequestration, if we are to achieve stringent, low CO2 emissions goals.

FLATOW: Is it your view, and I'll ask all of you, gentlemen, is it your views that nuclear energy, nuclear power plants, are an end unto themselves, or are they just stopgap measures to combat global warming until other renewable, maybe greener, energy sources, perhaps even fusion that we were talking about before, comes online?

Dr. MONIZ: Well, I think it's - it would be presumptuous to talk about what will be the technology mix, you know, many decades down the road. The fact is that if we are going to be serious about the kinds of greenhouse gas targets we talk about, we need to get our ship, the ship being the energy business, turning right now.

And over the next two to three decades, I certainly believe that nuclear power, as I said, must be a part of that mix with the other technologies. 2050 and beyond, well, we can all hope for major breakthroughs.

FLATOW: Stewart Brand, did you always believe in nuclear energy?

Mr. BRAND: No, I flipped on it, and I can say a little bit about that, but to your question about whether nuclear is stopgap, I think it's - that's unknown. It's unknown because one, it's already pretty good. Twenty percent of the U.S. energy comes from nuclear, 16 percent of the world gets it from there. And we'll talk about the various ways it looks to be getting better.

The question is, what do you do for base load power, for power that's always on? And so far, solar and wind can't do that. Until we get a way to really do storage, those guys are going to be a partial solution at best.

If we get solar coming down from space, where it's always on, then it's base load power, but it's really expensive to get there unless we start mining asteroids, which could happen.

So it looks to me like we're stuck with nuclear as the best no-to-low carbon source of base load power for some decades to come.

FLATOW: Tom, do you agree we're stuck with nuclear?

Dr. COCHRAN: Well, I don't think you framed the debate properly. The issue is not whether one is for or against nuclear power. The issue at hand is whether one is for additional federal subsidies to construct new nuclear plants in the United States, and you find a situation where all of the major environmental organizations, their highest priority is federal legislation that will cap carbon emissions, and this happens to be the single policy that would do the nuclear industry the most good because it would change the underlying economic comparison between nuclear and fossil fuels.

So the real issue here, again, is whether we should be using federal money to subsidize the construction of new nuclear plants, or should we use the more economically efficient way to attack the climate mitigation, and that is to cap carbon and let these various technologies compete. And nuclear's problem is, with regard to new plants, they're uneconomical today, and the unit cost is so large that the energy generating companies and utilities cannot readily, privately finance them, and so…

FLATOW: What are the…

Dr. COCHRAN: So those companies that are interested in nuclear are coming to the federal government to get the government to pay a substantial part of the cost of a new plant and to subsidize the risk associated with financing, through loan guarantees.

Mr. BRAND: That seems like a kind of a way-around-the-horn argument. I mean, it's like saying we disapprove of France getting 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear because, you know, they didn't do it in exactly the same market way we do, and should we ask them to shut down their plants because they did it wrong?

Dr. COCHRAN: That's not the issue. Nuclear is here. We have 104 plants operating in the United States. They operate very efficiently, at over 90 percent capacity factor. There are 435 plants worldwide. There's something like 44 plants under construction worldwide. Nuclear is part of the mix.

That is not the issue, at least from a federal policy standpoint. The issue, at least in this town, in Washington, D.C., is whether the federal government ought to be subsidizing the construction of new nuclear power plants, rather than fixing the climate issue through a cap and trade legislation, such as the Waxman-Markey Bill, and then let nuclear compete.

Dr. MONIZ: If I could add to that, Ira.


Dr. MONIZ: First of all, I certainly agree with Tom that what we would really like to see, assuming, of course, CO2 is our focus, I might add that we do have other policy objectives, as well, such as energy security, etcetera, but let's just stay with CO2.

Then there's no question that a real legislated cap on CO2 would be the most effective approach and the most effective policy, and the marketplace should indeed sort out the options. However, the reality is while we see encouraging progress today with, for example, the Waxman-Markey Bill, certainly, President Obama's strong support for climate legislation, I don't think anyone seriously believes that we are going to be at a place where our legislation has a clean, serious cap on CO2 for quite some years.

We don't have time to waste to demonstrate the options for the marketplace, let's say 10 years from now. In that context, we have had supported federal incentives not only for nuclear but for all carbon-free technologies. We are not, for example, seriously pursuing and demonstrating carbon sequestration. We do have a number of incentives...

Mr. BRAND: Think it will work, either way?

Dr. MONIZ: I think it will work at some level. Whether or not it can be a long pole of the tent, I think remains very, very open. We are supporting, particularly, the introduction of wind and solar. And with nuclear, we have untested licensing procedures, we have new evolutionary plants. What we advocated and is - and what is in law, in fact, in 2005, is for so-called first mover plants.

One can argue whether that's five or 10 plants, we believe there is a public good in support for having the industry move out and build a relatively small number of plants so that they and we and investors can all understand what the new generation of nuclear plant built in the United States will cost, how will the licensing go, how it would operate, and then let the marketplace decide as the carbon legislation is put in place.

FLATOW: What about the problem about the Yucca Mountain situation where the - waste storage of the waste - the nuclear waste here. Have we now decided that it's best to keep them at the nuclear sites rather than to create a central repository like at Yucca Mountain?

Mr. BRAND: They're pretty safe there. The dry cast storage, you know, these things are out back of the parking lot. They've been there for a number of years. It was the interim solution while Yucca kept being argued about, apparently indefinitely. And we're realizing that the interim solution is a pretty good one.

FLATOW: Tom, do you agree?

Mr. COCHRAN: Well, it's an interim solution. You can safely store the spent nuclear fuel in dry cast at the reactor sites as long as the utilities and energy companies are there to manage the cast. They don't represent a significant risk in my judgment.

There is a long-term problem, though, in that this spent fuel has a toxicity that will last for tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years...

Mr. BRAND: But it goes down fast.

Mr. COCHRAN: ...long beyond the lifetime of the social institutions that we're living under today. And so, we have, as a society, an obligation to move this material into safe storage.

It's an intergenerational risk problem. We have intergenerational risk associated with other energy technologies. This happens to be the one with - most prevalent with nuclear technology. So I think we can safely store the spent fuel at the sites. We should get on with identifying new geologic repository alternatives so that we can move this material underground as soon as possible.

FLATOW: All right. Let me just - I need to interrupt and tell everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Mr. BRAND: I have a question for Tom.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Mr. BRAND: What do you think of the WIPP, the site, the underground salt area in New Mexico where we've been putting nuclear waste for 10 years now? And should that be, maybe, what we do instead of Yucca Mountain?

Mr. COCHRAN: Well, I would say salt deposit near the WIPP facility should be one of the candidates, should - that we should examine in this second round effort to identify suitable repository sites. The WIPP site itself, you're going to run into political problems in trying to change the license of that particular site. But...

Mr. BRAND: Well, the licenses for military waste now is just - all you have to do is add civilian waste.

Mr. COCHRAN: Well, it's not quite that simple. But the salt deposit is a reasonable alternative that ought to be considered for the next repository.

Dr. MONIZ: Could I add, Ira, that first of all, I think it's important to reinforce the point, which I think Tom and Stewart have both agreed upon, and I do as well, that is in effect.

We have no - there's no technical, no science or technical reason that drives us to precipitous action in managing the spent fuel. Dry cast storage can be carried on, I would say, at least for a century scale, in fact, if one chooses to do so relatively economically.

However, even there, I would just at least voice a preference for not having the spent fuel distributed at 80 some sites, but to at least consolidate that under federal control at a small number of up sites for what is called interim storage. I prefer to call it managed storage.

And one reason is, I think Tom began to allude to this. For one thing, we have a number of shutdown reactors. We like to move it away. Secondly, and I'm quite aware of this, given my service at the Department of Energy in 1998, the government does have a responsibility to begin moving the fuel and is in fact accruing financial liabilities. I would rather see the spent fuel moved to a few locations under federal control.

For the longer term, the allusion to alternative geologies is perfectly correct. And salt is certainly one possible attractive medium. But I might add, we don't pay enough attention to the fact that there are rather successful repository programs going on, for example, in Scandinavia, in Sweden with granite, in France with clay. There are a variety of geologies that look very, very attractive. I will be honest. I don't think volcanic tuff is the most attractive...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. MONIZ: ...of geologies. So we have options and we should just - we should take our time to do it and move forward.

FLATOW: All right. We have to take our time to have a break now. So I'll ask you all to sit tight. We're going to take a short break and come back and talk lots more about the future of nuclear energy and nuclear power. We'll talk a little bit about, maybe, what new reactors might look like and how much it will cost. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about the future of nuclear power here in the U.S. with my guests, Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. Ernest Moniz, who is former undersecretary for the Department of Energy. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth catalog and also president of the Long Now Foundation and co-founder of the Global Business Network in Sausalito.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Professor Moniz, I'm looking at a report called "The Update of the MIT 2003 Future of Nuclear Power," a report that you helped write. And one of the striking things about the report, it talks about the escalating cost of nuclear power, how the cost since that report in 2003 for overnight, what are called overnight costs, have doubled in those, what, five years or some - since the original. Is nuclear power - could it not survive, as Tom Cochran seems to be intimating, if it were not subsidized?

Dr. MONIZ: Well, first of all, we should stress as the table in our report shows, that of course, the cost for everything has gone up dramatically in those six years. Similarly, the capital cost for coal nearly doubled, or for gas, it nearly doubled. So that's just a broad phenomenon.

Mr. BRAND: Also (unintelligible), I would assume.

Dr. MONIZ: It does impact nuclear more strongly in the sense that it is the most capital intensive of the options. So here, a major issue is the nature of the financing for any of these plants. And what our table shows is that the levelized cost of electricity for nuclear, coal or gas, all, any of the options, of those three options, frankly are very, very comparable if they all have comparable financing.

This does go back to the issue, the little debate we had with Tom, in terms of the incentives for all of these technologies, but nuclear in particular, in the near term. We need to establish the costs of building these plants in order to provide some confidence to the investment sector. That for example...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. MONIZ: ...the investment can be made with, let say, no more risk than that for, let say, a new coal plant or a new other kind of plant.

FLATOW: And what would the life expectancy of these plants be?

Dr. MONIZ: Well, nuclear plants today are now more than half of the - or no, roughly half of the plants have now been licensed for 60 years. So I think one should assume that a new nuclear plant would also be 60 years, possibly even longer.

FLATOW: The reason I ask is because I was at - not too long ago, at an MIT symposium on nuclear energy with experts there who were saying that there - if we were to build all these nuclear power plants, and let's use 1,000 that you use in your report, there's not enough uranium in the world to last 100 years to supply the uranium for these plants.

Dr. MONIZ: I...

FLATOW: Would you agree with that?

Dr. MONIZ: No, not at all, and our report said so. Since our original report, in six years, the estimates of uranium availability have, if anything, grown dramatically, we believe that…

FLATOW: But there has been no…

Dr. MONIZ: ...uranium resources is not a constraint for this century.

FLATOW: But there's no - you also say there that no such program has been initiated to actually take a census of how much uranium there is.

Dr. MONIZ: Correct. We've advocated a very systematic program supported by DOE to do that. But as we get in data from various companies, mining companies, and as we make the usual kinds of extrapolations for natural resources at a reasonable cost, the amount that is now acknowledged in the international database would support just about a growth to, let's say, 1,000 reactors and lifetime supply for those reactors. Frankly, in my gut, I think there would be many, many more if the demand - much more if the demand were there.


FLATOW: Well, let me...

Mr. BRAND: There's (unintelligible) discovery going on for uranium now...

Mr. COCHRAN: Well, I'm not sure I'm connected anymore…

FLATOW: Tom, you're there. Are you there, Tom Cochran?

Mr. COCHRAN: Ira...

FLATOW: Yes, go ahead.

Mr. COCHRAN: One thing, most nuclear engineers forget or don't realize is that the rate of - as uranium is mined, the efficiency of extraction outpaces the depletion of the resource. This is true of virtually every major mineral.

Dr. MONIZ: That's a nice way to put it.

Mr. COCHRAN: Therefore, as the demand goes up, the price in constant dollars, corrected for inflation, will stay flat or go down. And you can look at the history of minerals and see that. And so, you should not anticipate that the prices of uranium, over the long haul, there'll be price fluctuations due to short-term market imperfections. But over the long haul, the prices will stay flat or come down.

Similarly, uranium enrichment, there's large room for improving the efficiency of enriching uranium, the enrichment work. And so the price of enrichment will not go up substantially in constant dollars. And therefore, fuel costs for nuclear power plants are not anticipated to increase over the long haul. The real issue is the capital costs of the new plants. And if we could come back to that issue, the issue today is whether the federal government ought to be providing these additional subsidies.

Now, Ernie mentioned the need for first mover plants in the 2005 Energy Policy Act that was about several billion dollars worth of subsidies to build a few new nuclear plants. There are actually plants that will probably be built in the southeast, such as in Florida or South Carolina or Georgia, that are in regulated utilities. And the public utility commissions have given these utilities permission to get the return - the cost of construction in the rate base while the plants are being constructed.

So we don't even need federal dollars in - to build these new plants and to meet the concerns that Ernie Moniz has. We can find out what these costs and what the financial impacts of the…

FLATOW: Tom, why are you so concerned about federal underwriting?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COCHRAN: Well, what - I just really, in my gut, object to having people in states that don't use nuclear power plants or - be taxed so that people in other states can use their money to pay for their electricity. You have a situation you've created under the 2005 Energy Act where we are about - if we subsidize the construction of the Calvert Cliffs three plant in Maryland, that plant, it was 50 percent owned by Electricite de France, which is - the major stockholder is the French government.

So we're about to tax people in Montana, Colorado and so forth to subsidize the French government so Electricite de France can get a toehold into the electricity market in Maryland and sell electricity to people here in Washington D.C. and Baltimore at below what the cost would be otherwise, and thereby encourage people not to do things like use energy more efficiently and so forth.

Mr. BRAND: Are you tracking a new microreactor (unintelligible). reactors?

Mr. COCHRAN: The proper way to deal with the climate issue is to cap the carbon emissions and let these technologies compete. Nuclear's had $100 billion more with the subsidies over its lifetime. It's a 50-year-old mature industry, and we shouldn't have the federal government continue to subsidize it just because the nuclear industry has effective lobbyists on K Street.

FLATOW: All right, Tom, let me interrupt. Stewart Brand, you were going to ask about these microreactors?

Mr. BRAND: Yeah. Tom, I wonder if you're tracking on and Professor Moniz. Microreactor designs are coming out fast. These are down 25-megawatt, 35-megawatt, 50-megawatt level. They cost about $1 million a megawatt. They are quick to build. They're - they look like a whole different animal than the big 1.2, 1.6 gigawatt reactors. Is that your view?

FLATOW: Dr. Moniz?

Mr. COCHRAN: Certainly, the Russians are taking what's in effect submarine reactors or reactors for icebreakers. And are putting them on a barge and are going to try to provide power to remote regions with these small reactors. Whether these small reactors are - would be competitive in the United States is a whole different issue.

I sort of doubt it. The trend has been, over the years, to build larger and larger and larger reactors to try to benefit from some economies of scale. And I just think it's unlikely that going back to a very small reactor would be economical in the United States.

Mr. BRAND: But their company (unintelligible)…

Mr. COCHRAN: But let them have it, you know?

Mr. BRAND: …(unintelligible) orders already.

Mr. COCHRAN: If people want to risk their money and try to license one of these and sell it, go for it.

FLATOW: What was that, Stewart?

Mr. BRAND: Just to gather the - one of the companies, Hyperion, in New Mexico working with the Los Alamos design, they claim they have a bunch of firm orders. So they're getting traffic.

FLATOW: In the few minutes, we're having left - we have left, Dr. Moniz, what are the - what would newer reactors look like - be different than the ones we have now?

Dr. MONIZ: Well, first of all, I think that the light water reactor that is the, you know, the backbone of the global nuclear feat today will remain a very, very important technology throughout this century, frankly. However, I think on the horizon, potentially, are high temperature gas reactors, which could be very interesting. We have some historical experience with that, didn't go very well, although the problems were not with the reactor per se, to be honest.

These are attractive reactors in the sense that they are more efficient, they operate at higher temperature. And indeed, they might even have uses other than electricity using high quality heat.

But the real issue right now is we need to - there is a federal program moving forward to try to demonstrate a modern high temperature gas reactor. These, by the way, are also - they're not microreactors, but they typically would have a scale in the 100 to 300 megawatts versus the thousand or 1,400 megawatts of light water reactors. And at that scale, they may have an interesting niche in the power market.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking about (unintelligible) reactors…

Mr. BRAND: …(unintelligible) and generating hydrogen and stuff like that with that temperature range.

FLATOW: Hang on. Hang on. Hang on, Stewart. I got to give a station break. We're talking about SCIENCE FRIDAY - we're talking about nuclear reactors on SCIENCE FRIDAY at this hour from NPR News.

Okay. I've got - just about one minute or so left. Are we all talking that these reactors will be safer or as safe, or safer than the ones we have today? No one has argued - or is worrying about the safety of these, correct?

Mr. BRAND: Correct.

Dr. MONIZ: Well, the - I mean, by observation, at least, in the last years, we've had extraordinary performance from the fleet. We have had glitches. There was a problem in Ohio plant. It was caught in time, but it was a glaring problem. But overall, these plants have operated -more than 90 percent of the time, they've operated well.

The net - the high temperature gas reactors I just alluded to, have some additional attractions in terms of what are called passive safety features. So I would say the safety rating of reactors has gone up by about a factor of 10 over the last several decades.

FLATOW: Tom Cochran, you agree?

Mr. COCHRAN: Well, the most important factor affecting the safety of a nuclear plant is the safety culture at the plant.

FLATOW: The people.

Mr. COCHRAN: The safety culture at U.S. plants has improved over the years, but overseas there's still countries where the safety culture is poor or, in the case of China, untested. And so, since most of the reactors that will be operating over the next 30 years are reactors that are currently operating, I think you should look at - toward foreign reactors in terms of the risk associated with a catastrophic nuclear accident or meltdown.

FLATOW: All right, gentlemen, I ran out of time. We will pick this up again because it is - it's going to be an evolving issue. I'm…

Mr. BRAND: No kidding.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah. Glad you took time to be with us today. Stewart Brand is founder of the Whole Earth catalog and president of the Long Now Foundation and co-founder of the Global Business Network. Ernest Moniz, former undersecretary for the Department of Energy, professor of physics and engineering systems and director of the Energy Initiative at MIT. Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the NRDC in Washington.

Thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us today.

Dr. MONIZ: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Have a good weekend.

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