Bush Calls Nuclear Power Key to Environment Plan President Bush says that if the U.S. really wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear energy is part of the solution. Dan Kammen, of the University of California, Berkeley, talks about the pros and cons of nuclear power.
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Bush Calls Nuclear Power Key to Environment Plan

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Bush Calls Nuclear Power Key to Environment Plan

Bush Calls Nuclear Power Key to Environment Plan

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

Global warming is making nuclear power look more attractive these days, despite concerns about safety and questions about what to do with nuclear waste, and the White House likes it.

BRAND: President Bush championed nuclear energy at his news conference yesterday.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If you're truly serious about dealing with greenhouse gases, then it seems like to me you ought to be a strong supporter of nuclear power. Nuclear power enables us to generate electricity without emitting one, you know, unit of greenhouse gases.

BRAND: And to check out that claim, we're joined now by Dan Kammen. He's the found director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley. Welcome to the program.

Dr. DAN KAMMEN (University of California, Berkeley): Well, thank you for having me on.

BRAND: So, is that true? That it doesn't emit one unit of greenhouse gasses?

Dr. KAMMEN: Well, no, it's not exactly true, but it does depend on your definition. Because as you generate electricity from nuclear energy, there's no greenhouse gas associated with that process. But there is greenhouse gas associated with constructing the reactors, with harvesting, mining the uranium, with refining it. And so while it is a very low-carbon technology, it's not no-carbon.

BRAND: What about enriching the uranium. Does it take coal-fired energy to do that?

Dr. KAMMEN: Well, it do take some form of energy, whether you use coal of some other source, but it does require an energy. And since most of our energy in this country, up to 86 percent, does have fossil fuel associated with it, it's likely to have some carbon dioxide emissions releases. Now, it's still a low-carbon source, but it's not a zero carbon.

BRAND: But still, people are taking a second look at nuclear energy these days, in light of global warming. And you know, since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl Americans have not been very enthusiastic, shall we say, about using nuclear energy. But now, several decades later, has the technology become safer and should we be looking at it again?

Dr. KAMMEN: Well, I do think we should be looking at it again and the technology is certainly safer. Nuclear reactors have a excellent operating record in the United States, as far as the reactors themselves are concerned. And in fact the Thee Mile Island reactor accident, as in the Chernobyl accident, were really quite long ago in terms of technology.

BRAND: And of course there are still problems associated with storing nuclear waste, right?

Dr. KAMMEN: Well, that's right. That's actually where I think the real issues in the cycle are. Nuclear reactors in this country are operated remarkably efficiently and with very, very high safety standards and safety records. But the rest of the cycle has a number of troubling issues. We have to transport the waste. We store it in interim storage, essentially in tanks in swimming pools. We then have to send it by rail to the repositories. And in fact the one repository that the U.S. has identified, the Yucca Mountain one, has a number of problems of its own, including potential water intrusion and migration of the waste. And the problems that - that facility is actually almost entirely spoken for, i.e., all filled up, before it's even been opened. So as hard as it was to identify and as costly as it was to develop that site, we already need another one and we haven't opened the first one yet.

BRAND: And it doesn't seem likely that Americans would welcome another nuclear waste storage facility anywhere near them.

Mr. KAMMEN: I don't think so. Nevada, from local representatives to state senators to (unintelligible) the House of Representatives, have voted against it and requested it not be put in their state time after time, and essentially they've have it rammed down their throat by the federal government.

BRAND: Well, what about so-called renewables? Wind, solar, wave. How far along are we in developing those alternative sources of energy?

BRAND: Well, some of them are quite far along. Wind power in particular can be deployed on large scale. It is being deployed on large scale in countries that are aggressively supporting it. U.S. is one of them, although we're not the lead countries right now. Germany and Norway, also Denmark and Spain are actually ahead of us. And it's very, very low-cost. The issue is that you need to build a new transmissions lines and it's intermittent, that the wind is blowing some of the time, not all the time. Now, there's ways to move power around and to store it. We do need some large-scale baseload capacity of which nuclear is one of the options to provide because it doesn't depend on the weather, it's on as long as there's fuel available.

BRAND: And there are also concerns of even if we have a lot of solar power, it wouldn't be enough to fulfill our energy needs.

Mr. KAMMEN: Well, that's not quite true. I would say that the issue is moving it around. Right now, we have the ability - if we wanted to devote some blocks of land to doing solar - we really could do it. There could be large scale deployments and we wouldn't need all that much land area. In fact, by some estimates less land area. If we wanted to power the country with it, then we'd devote it to the current infrastructure for coal mines and power plants and refining stations. The problem is that it would come in one area and when the sun is down, then it's off, or when it's a cloudy day or raining. So you need a diversity of supply, but solar and wind and geothermal could provide a very large fraction of the mix.

Almost all analysts agree, myself included, that we would need a range of these and that you would better not only to diversify your supply because of the benefits of having multiples and back-ups - wind or solar or nuclear - but also because it will generate competition between the technologies. And the more they're fighting more for market share, the more they will hopefully try to bring their costs down and get a better deal to consumers.

BRAND: So you wouldn't rule out nuclear power. You would just include it in a broad package of different energy sources?

Mr. KAMMEN: Absolutely. I think that with the issues of global warming, nuclear is and should be very much back in the mix. It's an important option. In fact, if you really want to think about getting off of coal - we get half of our electricity from this country and China gets two-thirds of their power from - we're going to need a low, low carbon base load option. And the only ones out there right now that are deployable in the near term, not solar in space or things that we might do in the long term, would be nuclear power or carbon capture and storage. So when you're burning coal or oil or natural gas, then you're capturing all this CO2 and then burying it somewhere, and in my view there are actually a greater number of problems with that technology, deploying it at scale, than in thinking about rebuilding our nuclear industry. But that said, nuclear's got some real challenges.

We have in this country about a hundred nuclear power plants operating today and all of those need to be retired in the next 30 years or so. So just rebuilding the current fleet is going to be a real challenge because of the cost. Nuclear power plants are very expensive, $5-9 billion each. Since we have not built one since the early 1980s, another part of the problem is that we really don't have the infrastructure to scale up, building the reactor vessels and all the various technologies, let alone the human capacity to staff all these plants at safe levels. So it's going to be a real challenge, even if you wanted to essentially restart the U.S. industry.

BRAND: Isn't there another problem with security these days? Nuclear fuel could be diverted to make nuclear weapons. It could be - these nuclear reactors could be targets for terrorists?

Mr. KAMMEN: There's actually quite a bit of nuclear materials - uranium, plutonium, floating around from the former Soviet Union or various locations. This would add to that. But that risk is already out there, even if we didn't restart the industry. So yes, it comes with a number of challenges. High capital cost is only one of them.

BRAND: Dan Kammen directs the Berkeley Institute of the Environment. He joined us from Berkeley, California. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. KAMMEN: It's a pleasure.

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