By Jim Haddadin
Foster’s Daily Democrat
March 8, 2012

DOVER — With better technology and safety measures in place, and with lingering mistrust of nuclear power beginning to abate, the nuclear industry is set for a resurgence in the United States, according to former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

During a meeting with Foster’s Daily Democrat editorial board on Wednesday, Whitman, who is now an advocate for the nuclear industry, said nuclear energy must be a component of the country’s energy policy in order to meet future demand for clean energy.

“We can’t have a quality of life that we want — we can’t have a growing economy — without affordable, reliable power,” she said, “and we’ve got to understand what the trade-offs are and make the decisions based on that, ensuring that everything we bring on is as clean, green and safe as we can make it.”

Whitman was appointed director of the Environmental Protection Agency by President George W. Bush in 2001, and served in the role until departing in 2003. She is now co-chairperson of The Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which is funded by the nuclear industry.

Whitman said the group is cochaired by Patrick Moore, who was previously active in the environmental group Greenpeace.

According to Greenpeace’s website, Moore left Greenpeace in 1986 and now advocates against many positions favored by the environmental organization.

Whitman said representatives from the nuclear industry asked the pair to start CASEnergy Coalition about six years ago to “get out the facts” about nuclear energy, believing sound information will help the public make informed decisions. Whitman said CASEnergy Coalition has more than 2,800 members, including current and former elected officials, labor representatives, hospital associations and chambers of commerce, among others.

The Department of Energy anticipates the demand for energy in the United States will increase 24 percent by 2035, Whitman said, and meeting that demand will require a range of energy sources, including, oil, natural gas, solar energy, geothermal energy and nuclear power.

“We want to make it as clean and green and safe and affordable as we can,” she said.

As a past president of New Jersey’s Board of Public Utilities, Whitman said she visited reactors and became “confident and comfortable with safety levels in this country,” through first-hand experience.

Whitman, a Republican, served as New Jersey’s governor from 1994 to 2001. She was then appointed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency by President George W. Bush, and served in the post until 2003.

During her time in office, and in her work as a consultant to environmental companies, Whitman said she’s seen public opinion begin to shift in regard to the safety of nuclear energy.

“That intensity of the opposition, again, seems to have dissipated,” she said. “It’s not what it was when these plants up here were going in.”

The construction of Seabrook Station aroused passionate opposition in the 1970s, at one time erupting into civil disobedience and mass arrests. The plant was authorized for construction in 1976, and reached full operation in 1990.

Nuclear power fell out favor in the years that followed construction of Seabrook Station, and Whitman said the industry lost its appetite for big investments. In recent years, a spike in the price oil and gas has raised new questions about meeting future energy demand, and utilities have started investing in “just about everything,” including solar, wind and nuclear energy, Whitman said.

At the same time, Whitman said public opinion is turning, in part because utilities have been quick to respond when they find potential safety issues. And during a genuine emergency — the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 — workers who were in the greatest danger did not suffer “overexposure” to radiation, she said.

Whitman said nuclear power providers in the United States now operate in the most “highly-regulated industry in the world,” particularly in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and last year’s atomic meltdown in Japan.

“You tend to find, as we get better and better at monitoring things, we will find things that are occurring,” she said. “We tend to catch them before they become a real threat to human health.”

In February, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted one of its first new licenses for nuclear energy production in decades, authorizing a combined operating license for two reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia. Another license application being reviewed by the NRC would grant permission for two reactors to be situated near an existing facility in South Carolina.

More than 100 nuclear energy facilities are currently in operation in the United States, and nuclear power accounts for approximately 20 percent of the country’s electricity production, according to the EPA.

Maintaining and expanding nuclear energy production will require the industry to replace a contingent of aging employees, Whitman said, and that will equate to thousands of new jobs in the energy industry.

She said the nuclear industry foresees the need to train 25,000 new workers in coming years. To meet the demand, CASEnergy Coalition is helping connect utilities with community colleges to expand degree programs that lead to careers in nuclear energy, Whitman said.

On average, nuclear facilities create between 500-700 jobs once they’re operating, according to Whitman. Constructing a facility also stands to bring between 1,000 and 3,000 temporary construction jobs to a region where a new facility is sited, she said.

“When people do have the facts about nuclear, they get much more comfortable with it,” she said.