By David Falchek
May 6, 2013
U.S. enthusiasm for natural gas as an expanding source of electricity generation is shortsighted, said former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman.
Ms. Whitman, co-chairwoman of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, has been working to keep nuclear power in the forefront of the national discussion on energy policy in an era of inexpensive natural gas and ongoing concerns about reactor safety.
Natural gas should be viewed as only part of the solution, said Ms. Whitman.
Ms. Whitman said nuclear energy accounts for about 20 percent of U.S. power generation and should stay at roughly that level going forward. PPL Corp. has obtained an operating license extension for both reactors at Susquehanna nuclear plant near Berwick to 2042 and 2044.
Natural gas, a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than coal, is not a bad option, she said. But like other fossil fuels, it is subject to dramatic price swings.
“The utility industry has been down this path before, when gas prices were low and then they spiked,” said Ms. Whitman, former governor of New Jersey.
Just by being available, natural gas has put pressure on attempts to build or recommission nuclear power plants, many of which are coming to the end of their useful lives. It also has given investors pause, Ms. Whitman said. Many would rather not put money behind something so expensive and subject to a changing political climate.
“This generation gets its information about nuclear power from ‘The Simpsons;’ my generation got it from Three Mile Island and ‘The China Syndrome,'” she said. “We are poorly informed about nuclear power.”
Natural gas may be cleaner than coal, she said, but it’s not cleaner than emissions-free nuclear. There are better ways to address the seemingly insolvable problem of nuclear waste, she said. Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was to be a storage facility for spent nuclear reactor fuel, but the plan was scrapped.
“We had a solution in Yucca. We spent billions on it. But we walked away from it not because of nuclear science, but because of political science,” she said. The result is that waste is stored on-site at 95 different nuclear power plants.
The volume of nuclear waste, currently enough to fill a football field to the goal posts, can be reduced by 95 percent by reprocessing it, she said. The remainder can be rendered non-weapons grade and the half-life reduced from 10,000 years to 100 years through further processing.
More recent nuclear events, such as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan, have raised more questions. But the likelihood of such disasters in the U.S. is diminished by reactor design.
Fukushima failed because of a lack of backup power. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. nuclear facilities were required to have off-site backup power. Even a Three Mile Island-style problem is less likely as reactor design has been refined and standardized.
New reactors use less water, are generally safer, and the industry remains the most highly regulated in the nation, Ms. Whitman said.
America’s energy can’t come entirely from natural gas, coal, nuclear or renewables, she said.
“There is no one silver bullet. We will always have coal. Renewables need a backup,” he said. “Even with natural gas, we still need nuclear.”