What Is The Future Of American Nuclear Power? A Conversation With Christine Todd Whitman

By Josh Wolfe
September 4, 2013

Christine Todd Whitman served in the cabinet of President George W. Bush as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003. She was the 50th Governor of New Jersey, serving as its first woman governor from 1994 until 2001. Prior to becoming Governor, she was the President of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and served on the Somerset County board of Chosen Freeholders. Since leaving the EPA, Governor Whitman has served as President of The Whitman Strategy Group (WSG), a consulting firm that specializes in energy and environmental issues. She co-chairs Clean and Safe Energy (CASE) and is a member of the board of directors of the American Security Project. Governor Whitman has a BA in government from Wheaton College in Norton, MA.

Let’s start with an overview of CASE. What are your primary areas of focus?

CASE (Clean and Safe Energy) works to educate people on nuclear energy. We put out information to help communities make informed decisions on the benefits and risks of nuclear energy. We put an extra focus on jobs and helping minority groups understand potential careers in the industry.

We’re funded by the Nuclear Energy Institute, and we are a coalition of about 3,200 members. Our members include current and former elected officials and opinion leaders, and we also have hospitals, associations and labor unions.

Today, there are 438 reactors worldwide. That number is expected to double by 2030, but almost all of that growth outside of the United States. What is driving that environment of growth outside of the United States, and why the decline here?

Today’s generation knows nuclear best from The Simpsons. The US is experiencing a lack of information, as well as a hangover effect from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Studies have shown that the closer people live to nuclear reactors, the more comfortable they are with nuclear, and the more they appreciate the safety of this energy and the benefits to the community. These studies excluded people who work at the nuclear sites. The farther people live from a reactor, the greater the lack of information.

There are problems, of course. First of all, there’s no question that bringing a reactor online is a big investment,especially compared to the current low price of natural gas. Yet we’ve been here before: natural gas prices go up and down, while uranium for nuclear energy stays affordable and we can lock in long term contracts.

Also, there are legitimate questions about safety, and CASE is about answering those questions and laying out the facts about the record of the US nuclear industry. We work with communities to make them comfortable with nuclear, and the four new reactors being built right now (two in Georgia, two in South Carolina) are examples of that process.

How does CASE answer the concerns of environmentalists?

My co-chair at CASE, Dr. Patrick Moore, is one of the co-founders of Greenpeace. He has emphasized the distinction between nuclear weapons and nuclear power, as well as the significance of climate change and air quality. Those issues are more important now to many environmentalists.

We’ve met with leaders from the big environmental groups, such as NRDC and EDF, and while they may not embrace nuclear, they’re not putting up barriers as in the past, because they are so concerned about climate change and air quality, as they should be.

You mentioned the extensive number of jobs in nuclear energy. Can you delve into that a little more?

We are looking an industry with a lot of aging workers who are relatively close to retirement. In fact, some 39% of the current nuclear industry workforce will be eligible to retire in the next four years. Even considering the fact that more new reactors are being built outside of the US, even if the United States brings on no additional nuclear power, we’ll see an increase in manufacturing here in the United States. For example, 90% of the component parts for the A.P. Westinghouse 1000s are built in the United States. These were used in South Carolina and Georgia, but they’re also building two in China, and that has created some 19,000 jobs here in the United States.

We are talking about a whole pipeline of jobs—not just nuclear scientists and engineers. These plants need electrical wiring, cement, security, cleanup—a whole panoply of jobs. There’s a lot of hiring to be done, and when the decision-makers consider what their energy mix should look like, they need to understand that nuclear brings a lot of good jobs.

Construction requires anywhere from 1,500 to 1,800 jobs, up to 5,000 at peak construction. After construction, operation requires 400 to 700 permanent full-time jobs that pay 35% to 38% more than a comparable job would in that local community. Each reactor results in about 460 million dollars in generated state and local taxes, and 40 million dollars in labor costs and benefits, so they produce a lot for a community.

Would you agree that our national political situation struggles to solve issues, including nuclear energy policy, in a bipartisan manner?

That’s an understatement. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t look at any issue except through the partisan prism. It’s not policy anymore, it’s all politics, and it’s about what gets the vote at re-election. Yet, we live in a democracy, and we are the ones—the public—who must stand up and say it, instead of just complaining about Congress.

People who want to learn more or want to support our work can join atwww.cleansafeenergy.org, or follow us on social media. A lot of common questions are answered there, and we provide honest answers without sugar-coating issues, because the worst thing that can happen to us is lose our credibility by trying to pretend something isn’t an issue.