By MJ Slaby
Knoxville News-Sentinel
April 30, 2015

Christine Todd Whitman, co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, knows most people don’t think about nuclear energy as much as she does.

“That’s just because it’s not relevant to their everyday life,” Whitman said. “What’s relevant to their everyday life is they can charge their iPhone or their iPad and that their electricity works. That’s what matters to them.”

But the energy sources used to produce that electricity determine how clean the air is, and Whitman said clean air is something people agree they want.

Energy should be reliable, affordable and clean, and Whitman said that’s why she speaks in support of nuclear energy, which she said is all three of those things.

Whitman is a former Republican governor of New Jersey and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator under President George W. Bush. As a leader of the energy coalition, she visited East Tennessee this week to meet with various groups and answer questions about nuclear energy.

Whitman toured the Watts Bar nuclear power plant in Spring City, Tenn., met with University of Tennessee students and faculty, and spoke at the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy.

She said the coalition focuses on education instead of lobbying to change the national conversation about nuclear energy. As frustrating as the process can be, she urged people to write their elected officials about their energy concerns.

“People are very frustrated because they don’t see Congress — either the House or Senate — really solving problems. They’re very good at saying all this way or all that way, but compromise is now a dirty word,” Whitman said.

But a concentrated group of people can make a difference for decision-makers, she said.

Whitman said she wanted to speak with Tennesseans about nuclear energy because of the state’s projected growth for the next few years.

“The expectation is that you will have increased demand for power,” Whitman said.

In Tennessee, 36 percent of energy comes from nuclear power, and that’s within the 70 percent of energy classified as clean energy, Whitman said.

Nuclear energy is expensive to start, but once it’s running, it can be one of the least expensive power sources, and a nuclear reactor has a roughly $450 million annual economic impact on the community, making it a positive long-term choice, she said.

Although the coalition focuses on just nuclear energy, Whitman said it’s not an “either or” situation for power sources, including solar and wind.

“It’s going to be a combination,” she said. “Right now, we can’t store power from renewables…We have to figure that one out.”

Whitman said there is still a fear of the unknown with nuclear energy. That’s why she encourages people to ask questions and tour a reactor if they can.

She said the two questions she’s most frequently asked are “What about the spent rods?” and “What about safety?”

As far as the rods, Whitman said she tells people that all of the existing used rods from nuclear power plants would fill one football field to the height of the goal posts, so it’s not an unmanageable amount. Also, she said the rods aren’t suddenly going to release a “mushroom cloud.”

However, she said rod reprocessing is starting to see more funding. She said France and Japan have been successful with a process that reduces storage and converts remaining material so it can never be used for weapons.

“We’ve got so much energy sitting there in the spent rods that’s wasted right now,” Whitman said.

As for safety, Whitman said the potential for disaster from nuclear power plants is low. The way nuclear reactors in the U.S. are regulated, built, operated and managed is the “gold standard,” she said.

She hopes to see the U.S. keep researching ways to improve that standard as well as share those standards with other countries to keep all nuclear energy as safe as possible.

“We don’t want Russia and China to be the standards,” Whitman said. “Our standards are higher. We’re safer. We want to be in the mix.”