Take 5: Christine Todd Whitman; CASEnergy co-chair touts nuclear power

By Barbara Wieland
Lansing Journal
November 21, 2010

Despite what some critics might think, former federal Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman says nuclear energy is both clean and safe.

Whitman, co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition – CASEnergy – brought the organization’s pro-nuclear message to a luncheon meeting of the Lansing Regional Chamber Economic Club luncheon last week at the Eagle Eye Banquet Center in Bath Township.

She argued that nuclear energy drastically cuts down on pollution, lowers the cost of electricity and is safe to use.

The construction of new nuclear plants in the United States has been at a near standstill since a nearly disastrous incident – a partial meltdown of a reactor core at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in Pennsylvania in 1979. A new reactor is being built in Georgia, but several other would-be projects have been mothballed when people who live nearby have objected to them.

That sort of not-in-my-back-yard attitude, or NIMBYism, will only hold the country back, Whitman said.”We’re very good in this country at saying no to everything. (Some people) don’t even want windmills because they’re unsightly and birds look different coming out of them than they do going in. “That’s not the case with nuclear energy, and at some point you have to say ‘yes,’ ” she said.

Your organization, the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, advocates for nuclear energy, but many people think nuclear energy is not clean. What would you say to them?

(Nuclear) is the only form of 24/7 power that releases no greenhouse gas. Is there waste associated with it? Yes. But even if you’re going to manufacture wind turbines, you are going to release greenhouse gasses. (As to spent fuel rods), they are very safe. In the U.S. they are kept in underground ponds or in reinforced concrete bunkers.

What would you say to people who say nuclear energy isn’t safe?

Three Mile Island was a wake-up call. It was human error responsible and we now have better training in place. Everything is in place to protect workers at nuclear power plants now. There’s more oversight. A nuclear power plant is more safe than a chemical plant.

What about people who want nuclear power but wouldn’t accept a plant nearby?

People who have lived by the plants see it differently. We’ve done a study of people who live in communities with nuclear power plants, and even when you factor out the people who actually work in them, 80 percent of the people in the community said that having the plant nearby was a positive. We’re trying to get the education out there so that people can make factual decisions.

What role does nuclear power play in the age of electric cars such as the Chevrolet Volt?

As you well know here in Michigan, automakers are managing this challenge by transitioning their fleets to plug-in hybrids and all-electrics, which ties right back to the electric grid. We must remember that these electric vehicles will only be as clean as the electricity that charges them. Those plug-ins are only going to be as clean as the energy used to provide the power. As part of a low-carbon energy portfolio, we need low-cost effective energy sources around-the-clock (as opposed to solar energy, for example).

Is nuclear the only answer?

No. Of course, Americans know that no matter how good nuclear energy is, it’s not the only answer. No single energy source is going to solve our energy and environmental challenges. It’s going to take a portfolio of options, including wind, solar and other clean energy sources as well as conservation, and we need to invest in all of them.