Q&A: Former Gov. Whitman on Nuclear’s Promise – and its Limits

By Alan Neuhauser
U.S. News & World Report
September 28, 2015

Christine Todd Whitman could be called a realist.

A former Republican governor of New Jersey and member of the George W. Bush administration, she joined three other former GOP-appointed Environmental Protection Agency administrators on Capitol Hill last June to urge Senate lawmakers to acknowledge the existence of climate change. Now, as co-chair of the nuclear advocacy group Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, or CASEnergy, she not only calls on utilities to invest in atomic energy, she also recognizes the sector’s limits: Nuclear energy, she says, will likely never produce more than one-fifth of the nation’s electricity – and what’s more, it might one day be overtaken by zero-emissions renewables like wind and solar. And, she adds, that’s not a bad thing – but for the next few decades, she adds, we’ll still need to rely nuclear.

Whitman spoke with U.S. News & World Report by phone Sept. 15. The interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

*Natural gas, solar and wind are all much cleaner than coal and cheaper than ever. With all these energy sources at our disposal, why should we still be investing in nuclear energy?

Wind and solar are getting more efficient, they’re getting better and the costs are coming down. They’re still a tiny percentage of the overall energy mix. We’re looking at a 30 percent increase in electricity demand by 2040. They’re not going to be able to scale up to do that. They’re not base-power, and we need power 24/7, so that gets you back to your fossil fuels.

While natural gas is the one that’s really putting the pressure on nuclear, we’ve been here before, where we’ve seen the low cost of natural gas and then the price has gone up. Natural gas is not as clean as nuclear when it’s producing power, because nuclear releases no greenhouse gases or other regulated pollutants. And on a per-kilowatt basis, nuclear is in fact the least expensive form of power that we have.

So there are a lot of arguments for keeping nuclear as a part of the mix. To meet the Clean Power Plan and the pressure around the world to address these issues of emissions, we’re going to see a lot of pressure to clean up. It would be great if the renewables could in fact pick up that slack. There’s really no way that they can do that by 2040. It’s not an either/or, though: We need to be investing in those technologies because they are the cleanest – understanding you still need backup base power for them, and you need to have the cleanest of that base power.

*So what’s the ideal role for nuclear then? How much of our electricity should it provide?

We’re a little under 20 percent, and if we can stay there, we’ll be in the best place we can hope to be.

When we discovered how well fracking worked, you had some 17 consortiums that had 14 potential reactors before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Those reactors are still there, but they’re not pushing them as much because of the low price of natural gas.

*Only 20 percent?

I’m being practical. I’m sure there are other members of CASE who would like to see it higher than that, and some who say it’ll be even lower. When you look at 20 percent, I’m hopeful that the other part that will grow will be the renewables. We’ll figure out how to make them more efficient, how to make the footprint smaller, how to store that power, which is really the key so that it becomes base.

If people are so willing to understand that we’ve been able to clean up the environment because of actions that we’ve taken over the years, I don’t understand why they aren’t willing to see that we therefore are negatively impacting the environment. It’s a disconnect I can’t quite get my mind around.

*The nuclear and renewables industries do sometimes compete, but some experts say they could also do a far better job working together to promote that they’re both clean sources of energy – an argument they say could win more support from Congress and utilities, and also fend off the coal and natural gas sectors.

There’s always going to be a competitive fight at the edges. Most utilities, they’ll have some coal, they’ll have some gas, they’ll have nuclear and they’ll have investments in the renewables. But the majority, they’re just looking, ‘Where should I be investing my money?’

If we can have a national energy policy that outlined what we really want – which to my mind would be clean, green, reliable, affordable – that would send a very powerful message to the utilities where to focus their capital investments.

*How close does the Clean Power Plan come to providing that kind of national energy policy?

It’s a backdoor way. If it had been passed by Congress, it would have been much better. I know the agency itself would have much rather had Congress act than have to do this themselves. It’s been complicated, difficult, caused them all kinds of headaches with people who are attacking them. It’s just not as clean – no pun intended – as it could have been.

But it’s certainly shaping the playing field, without question. You’re not going to see any new coal fired power plants being brought on, and you’re seeing some retirements of the current ones.

*What about new nuclear plants? Does the biggest hurdle come from the safety concerns from nearby residents, resistance from utilities or something else?

It’s primarily with the utilities and the low cost of natural gas, and trying to get them to remember that they don’t want to put all their eggs in one basket.

You’ve also got all these members of Congress who are saying we’re going to do away with EPA, and we’re going to roll all this stuff back. I don’t think most of the utilities believe that’s going to happen – they see what’s happening in the rest of the world. But it’s a very confused state. This whole discussion has gotten politicized, and it’s hard to have a reasonable discussion when everybody is just in their bunkers shouting.

At the federal level now with the presidential campaign, you want to keep your head low, because it all revolves around climate change and you either believe absolutely everything about it or you believe none of it – Jeb Bush was an early signer onto CASEnergy, but he’s not going to talk about it right now. That’s a frustration, but that’s a frustration that I have personally with just about every issue. On both sides of the aisle, you go for the extremes because that gets you the coverage and makes you exciting.

What we have to understand is that we have to have power – we all want it, we all use it, so let’s figure out what is the right mix for us. There are trade-offs in any form of power. Many in the environmental community can find something wrong with anything: They don’t like the bird-kills with windmills. They don’t like big fields of solar panels, much less coal and fracking for natural gas and nuclear. You can find a reason to say no to anything.

*There are only five plants under construction now in the U.S., and just eight seek regulatory approval. How much of the nuclear sector’s future relies on new construction overseas?

I wouldn’t say ‘relies’ on it, but we’ll certainly see it. There are over 100 reactors that are either in the process of being licensed or being built.

China – they’re building just four reactors that are using Westinghouse AP-1000 technology – already accounts for 15,000 jobs in this country. So this is huge: billions and billions of dollars of potential for us here even if we don’t bring on any more nuclear in this country. It is production and manufacturing, something we do pretty well.

*Some commentators have also raised security concerns about this overseas investment: That new reactors in China, for example, might not have the same safety, security and construction standards as those built by U.S. companies. How important is it, from a safety and security standpoint, for the U.S. to have a role building those plants abroad?

We want to have a foot in the door. We want to be able to see and help other countries improve their standards so we don’t see something like Chernobyl happen again. It would behoove us to be very active overseas because, as we know, Mother Nature abhors geopolitical boundaries, couldn’t care less about them, and what happens in other places affects us.

*Looking ahead, there’s been a lot of talk recently about small modular reactors. What role might they play?

It’s hard to say because they’re so new, but they could have a huge impact. They’re easy to deploy, they’re much easier to secure, they use less component parts, there are a whole host of things that make them more attractive.

We may finally break through with fusion. It’s almost 20 years away – it’s been 20 years away for about the last 40 years – but people are still putting money and working on it.