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Problems led to the temporary shut-down of two East Coast nuclear power plants over the weekend. The nuclear power industry – its safety record and its future.
- Matthew Wald a reporter who covers nuclear power issues for the New York Times.
- Arjun Makhijani President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
- Scott Peterson Vice President-Communications, Nuclear Energy Institute
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Two East Coast nuclear power plants were temporarily shut down over the weekend after mechanical problems. Though they were relatively minor and not a threat to the public, it brought to mind the question of the safety and future of our aging plants and the industry. Joining me in the studio, Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Scott Peterson from the Nuclear Energy Institute and Matthew Wald of The New York Times. We will welcome your calls throughout the hour at 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning, gentlemen.
MR. SCOTT PETERSONGood morning.
MR. ARJUN MAKHIJANIGood morning, Diane.
MR. MATTHEW WALDGood morning.
REHMMatthew Wald, let me start with you. Explain the mechanical breakdowns that took place over the weekend.
WALDRight. Well, they were different from one another but happened almost simultaneously, hundreds of miles apart. Vermont Yankee, which is in political hot water at the moment -- its license is due to expire soon, and the state legislature doesn't want it to run past the end of the license -- had a drip, a few gallons spilled on the floor which somebody noticed walking by. It's mildly radioactive water. And it turns out that a weld failed, and they shut it down. It'll probably be back up by tomorrow.
WALDThis is a hot issue because the legislature has no ability to regulate safety, but it does have ability to regulate reliability. And it insists the plant is old and unreliable. The plant owner said, look, it ran 540 or 550 days continuously, stopped to refuel, ran 130 days, had this little problem, it'll be back up in a couple of days. Indian Point, Unit 2 -- there are two operating reactors there -- had an explosion in a transformer just outside the plant -- outside the reactor building, and they have a spare transformer. They'll put it in. They'll be shut down more than a few days, but not particularly long. It's their second transformer problem. They had one back in '08, I believe it was.
REHMNow, does anyone believe that there was any danger to the public whatsoever?
WALDNo. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, especially in the case of the Indian Point event, doesn't like plants shutting down on an unscheduled basis. It's like slamming on the brakes, and they'd like to do that as few times as possible. That was a very low level emergency because they called up the fire department. They had some other notifications to make. The Vermont Yankee wasn't even an emergency. It was just -- we got a leak. What are we going to do? Well, let's shut it down gradually over the next few hours and fix it. But neither one really constituted a threat to the public.
REHMMatthew Wald, he is a reporter who covers nuclear power issues for the The New York Times. Turning to you, Arjun Makhijani, are these kinds of problems typical for nuclear power plants around the country? Or was this something unusual?
MAKHIJANIWell, I don't think it's as unusual as it should be. There've been numbers of tritium leaks. There've been numbers of corrosion problems. And the most difficult part of it, I think, is many of these events indicate the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- which is supposed to supervise safety -- isn't as vigilant as it should be. And certainly, in my opinion, it's not as vigilant as it should be in relicensing these old reactors, so they can operate for 20 years more. There have been quite a few tritium leaks. There have been scandals around not reporting tritium leaks and then allegations of cover-ups, like in the Braidwood plant in Illinois where a tritium leak went numbers of years unreported, pollution of groundwater. This is not a huge public health issue in the sense of...
MAKHIJANIYet. Right. In the sense of hair falling out and all that, but -- what you normally associate with radiation, in the public mind perhaps. But certainly in the case of the tritium leak at the Braidwood plant in Illinois, there's some evidence of an excess of childhood cancer. And when I went out there, I realized that besides two sets of nuclear units, there are also lots of chemical plants out there. And we actually don't know -- a large part of the problem is we don't know how to balance out what is happening in terms of routine emissions, what's coming from the chemical plants -- 'cause we have less information from that than the nuclear plants. And I believe that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is not being vigilant enough with its operators.
REHMAnd what about the industry itself, to what extent is it responsible for policing what happens despite whether the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is doing regular inspections?
MAKHIJANIWell, you know, in all cases, I think here -- and in France, for instance, which gets more of its electricity from nuclear than we do in the U.S. -- the nuclear power plant operators are the frontline of being responsible for the safety of their plants. And the regulators all always oversee them because the people who are hands on should be responsible for safety. And I think that's appropriate. But how vigilant the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is and what kinds of inspections it does is starkly different between what happens in this country, say, and what happens in France that everybody here is talking about. Well, we should be like France, but we don't want to be like France in terms of the thoroughness of the inspections they do to maintain their safety.
REHMArjun Makhijani, he's president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Turning to you, Scott Peterson of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Both of the plants that Matthew Wald spoke about are operated -- owned and operated by a company out of New Orleans. What can you tell us about them?
PETERSONWell, Entergy is a company that operates both of those reactors. They operate reactors not only in the northeast but in the southeast. And like the companies throughout our industry, they are responsible operators of these facilities. They did the right thing over the weekend, in terms of shutting those reactors down and looking at the problems -- very conservative calls on both parts at Indian Point and Vermont Yankee. And so what you see is really the culture of safety in our industry at work, in terms of reacting to situations, being responsible in terms of shutting down the reactor and investigating. And, as Matt mentioned, the repair at Vermont Yankee will be a very quick one, and the plant will be up and operating once the operators are satisfied that this repair has been done and been done right.
REHMHowever, it's interesting that the Vermont Yankee plant was just put up for sale.
WALDRight. It was, Diane, put up for sale because Entergy has put its foot in its mouth one time too many in Vermont. Arjun talked about tritium leaks. And when there was the tritium leak at Braidwood in Illinois and elsewhere, government -- state government officials in Vermont asked Entergy, does Vermont Yankee have any underground pipes that could leak? And on two separate occasions, Vermont Yankee officials -- Entergy officials said, no, we don't have any underground pipes. Sure enough, they had an underground pipe, and it leaked tritium, not an amount that caused a dose to anybody. But it leaked tritium.
REHMHow do we know the underground leakage did not go in such an amount that would harm anyone?
WALDThere are two reasons. They dig wells -- not wells you pump water out of -- just wells you take samples from. Radioactive materials are extremely easy to find in extremely small concentrations. And in fact, at Vermont Yankee, they picked up mostly tritium, but another few odds and ends of things there. Ditto at Indian Point. They had a tritium leak. And also at Indian Point, it did not seem to get into anybody's drinking water. You can test the drinking water from the tap. You can drill lots of holes and map an underground plume of tritium.
WALDThis doesn't look very good, but it hasn't had a public health effect. But the problem that you refer to, why it's up for sale is it's clear the State of Vermont is never going to allow that plant to run under Entergy's ownership. And Entergy is hoping somebody else will be able to -- some new operator with a clean track record will be able to come in and say, look, I run six or eight nuclear plants around the country. I can do this better than the old guys, and they'll get something back out of their investment.
PETERSONWhen you look at the political environment that's happening today in Vermont, I mean, this is a political issue. It's not a safety issue. It's not a reliability issue because that plant, according to the safety data that the NRC inspects every day at that plant -- and they have onsite inspectors looking over the Entergy shoulders every day -- all of the ratings in those safety performance areas are the best that they can be. Vermont Yankee produces 80 percent of instate power in Vermont.
PETERSONIt supplies electricity for a third of its residents, and it does so without emitting any greenhouse gases. So if you take the operation of that plant out of the political arena and just look at it from a safety and reliability standpoint, there's no reason why that plant should keep operating. And there's no reason why that it should go through the process of relicensing and let the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a nonpolitical entity, judge on its merits whether it can operate safely for another 20 years.
MAKHIJANIWell, I don't know that if the NRC says that a plant is a good performer and is safe as it should be, that it actually is. We have a very dramatic example of that. Matt Wald has written about it in the past at a nuclear plant called Davis-Besse that had a severe corrosion problem. Now, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was aware of the corrosion problems. Actually, they'd been informed by the French safety authorities that there might be corrosion problems, and they were replacing all their reactor vessel heads in France for certain types of reactors.
MAKHIJANIAnd the NRC really did next to nothing. And NRC inspected -- there's a general government accountability project report that I can refer you to that's not my opinion. It's the opinion of the investigation. The local inspector was aware of corrosion problem but didn't think they were very serious, wasn't informed enough to recognize the seriousness, didn't pass it up. There was a pineapple-size hole in the reactor vessel head. We were half an inch from disaster, a third of an inch, maybe.
REHMArjun Makhijani, he's president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
REHMAnd welcome back. We are talking about the nuclear power industry, not only in this country. You've heard our guests mention what's happening in France. We'll get to that in just a moment. Matthew Wald is a reporter who covers nuclear power issues for The New York Times. And, Matt, you wanted to make a comment just before the break.
WALDRegardless of the health effect of tritium -- and I don't think there is any health effect -- nuclear power is held to a very high standard. And if you make misstatements to legislative panels, state regulatory panels as a nuclear operator, then you're in deep trouble.
REHMAnd that's what happened.
WALDThat's what Vermont Yankee did. Yes. That's what Entergy did at Vermont Yankee.
MAKHIJANINow, let me defer with Matt on one thing. I don't think he intended to say tritium doesn't have any health effects.
WALDThis tritium leak didn't have.
MAKHIJANIThis particular -- yeah.
MAKHIJANIYes. Yeah, tritium is radioactive hydrogen. And when it combines with oxygen, you get radioactive water, basically. And it passes through the system pretty fast, so you don't get a big dose of radiation. But every dose of radiation does increase cancer risk. Besides these leaks, there are also routine emissions. And I don't think we're looking well enough for their effects. But anyway, tritium is radioactive stuff.
WALDWell, let me put that in perspective...
WALD…because there's no tritium leak at a nuclear power plant that has reached the drinking water that's being used by the public in that area. And in fact, at Vermont Yankee, the Department of Public Health said, there's absolutely no health effects to the public near that plant from that leak. Now, obviously, the leak is something that we want to fix, and we have...
WALD...a voluntary program in place that goes above and beyond what our requirements are from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And we're implementing that program today.
REHMHere's a message on Facebook from Kath, who says, "I live about 20 miles away from Vermont Yankee, and this one is always in the news for some sort of controversy. Folks around here have been protesting and petitioning to have it shut down for many years -- leaks, faulty equipment, et cetera. It's always something. The thing is just a ticking time bomb. Considering this latest accident, how difficult is it going to be to sell this nuclear power plant?
WALDI don't know if this rises to the level of accident. I think there are likely to be potential buyers because the plant has a fairly low operating cost. At the moment, the price of electricity is depressed because of the recession. But the price will come back, and you can make money at this kind of thing. When the original builders -- a coalition of New England utilities built it -- they didn't run it particularly well. Entergy and other national nuclear power companies have bought up old plants and brought skill to bear on operating them.
WALDAnd they run them many more hours in a year, and they make money at them. And it's been a fairly good combination of management, expertise, specialization and making money. And it's been -- there have been fewer incidents under mass corporate ownership than there were under individual owners. So I think somebody is likely to bid on it.
PETERSONI think there will be interest in the marketplace for that plant really because if you look at the benefits that not only Vermont Yankee but nuclear power in general provides, they produce electricity 24/7. They have, as Matt said, among the lowest production cost on the grid. And if you're a state in New England that is a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, you need low carbon power in order to meet the goals that are in that process. Today, the State of Vermont sells carbon credits and reaps the benefit from that.
PETERSONIf you take Vermont Yankee offline, it's going to be replaced by natural gas. They're going to have to buy credits. So you have to combine the benefits in terms of what nuclear power provides to you, as well as the safety program that we have in place, again, to look at the issues that happened in the past weekend, take the steps necessary to fix them and maintain that safety regime going forward.
REHMNow, Matthew, another Facebook poster says, "I hope when people call in about the safety record or nuclear versus coal, they consider all the acid rain damage and poor air quality. Don't forget the damage from mountaintop mining and the sludge retention ponds that have broken open and decimated towns. Any attempt to harness more energy is going to have consequences." Arjun.
MAKHIJANIYes. I think nuclear versus coal is a kind of a false choice. Coal is routinely pretty bad. I think there's no comparison between the routine pollution problems caused by mountaintop removal, pollution of rivers, sulfur dioxide, acid rain and nuclear power plants. The coal power plants are much worse. On the other side, there's nothing like spent fuel -- you generate -- you make plutonium, which can be used to make bombs in the course of boiling water to make nuclear power.
MAKHIJANINow, you can't use that directly to make bombs. But if you separate it, you can use it to make bombs. Worldwide, there's as much surplus plutonium from commercial nuclear power production sitting around, separated, can be used to make bombs as the total of all the military nuclear arsenals in the world combined. Now, you know, let me throw some perspective on the relicensing process. We all admire the French. I mentioned them. What do the French do when they relicense compared to what the Americans are doing?
MAKHIJANIThe American process is mostly a paper process. The operator completes a relicensing application. They do their aging review, and they submit it. And the staff and Atomic Safety and Licensing Board does mostly paper review. The French shut down their plants for 90 days every 10 years. They don't give 40-year licenses. They have a 10-year operating permit. They shut it down for 90 days. They remove all the fuel from the reactor, and they inspect the reactor vessel radiographically inside every 10 years by law.
REHMSo what you're saying is that this country has not risen, really, to the challenge of inspecting, maintaining, doing due diligence on the nuclear power plants as has France?
MAKHIJANII think the relicensing process is much, much more lax here than it is in France.
REHMWhat do you think, Matt Wald?
WALDI think, in fact, we do take the fuel out and inspect American vessels every 10 years. Although the operating permit runs longer, if you find a problem in one of those inspections, as they did at Yankee row, your license may not be up. But the NRC won't let you run until you've persuaded the NRC that you are safe. I also think this is still, in some ways, a young industry and is evolving. Going back to Indian Point, when Con Ed owned one reactor -- the New York Power Authority owned the other -- they didn't do very well.
WALDThey had six or eight or 10 shutdowns a year that were unscheduled. Now, on average, they do one or two unscheduled shutdowns a year, maybe less, that we do get better at these things as we go. We have learned from the French experience. They have learned from us. I think, yeah, you can get a new license. But you got to stay safe, or you won't keep it.
REHMScott Peterson, tell me what would happen if the Vermont plant were shut down.
PETERSONWell, what would happen is the State of Vermont would immediately lose a third of its power, and just about all of its power that doesn't emit greenhouse gases. So under the scenarios that I've seen, most of that replacement power on a daily basis would be replaced by natural gas-fueled power plants. And those power plants would use about 110 million cubic feet of natural gas per day at a cost of $500,000, just for fuel cost every single day. So you're looking at not only more expensive power, you're looking at, where do you get that volume of natural gas, and what's the cost of it? Today, natural gas is relatively cheap. Five, 10 years from now, who knows what the price of natural gas is going to be 'cause there's volatility in that marketplace.
REHMAnd which states are currently most dependent on nuclear power?
PETERSONWell, Vermont is certainly one of those, probably the most dependent on nuclear power when you look at the entire portfolio of options in the State of Vermont. Again, it's 80 percent of all of the in-state generation of electricity that that state gets. The rest, they have to import either from other states on that Northeastern grid or from Canada. So this is not a decision that the State of Vermont's leadership or the citizens of Vermont should take lightly, both in terms of really considering the value of that asset today -- the 650 jobs that are associated with that facility at a time when we're losing jobs offshore everywhere -- and then what's the availability of power going to be on the daily spot market to be able to fill that at a reasonable cost.
REHMYou've also got New Jersey, Connecticut, South Carolina, Illinois, New Hampshire and Virginia, all of whom have relatively high levels of nuclear power plants going on. From the reporting you've done, Matt, which plants around the country most need to be replaced?
WALDThe one that had the most difficulty getting license renewal was Oyster Creek in Toms River, N.J. It is the oldest. It had a corrosion problem early in its career in a spot that was difficult to measure. It was relicensed. And because it was relicensed, I think the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will relicense all the plants that want to be relicensed.
WALDIt's not clear to me. If you take the 40-year license, you give somebody another 20 years. It's not clear to me that all of them will run an additional 20 years. It depends on the economics. It's probably not a safety question. It probably depends most on the price of natural gas, the aggregate level of demand, the success of wind power, whether you can make money at it. Whether or not Vermont Yankee is good for Vermont, the real decision is by some corporate entity which will decide, can I run this profitably?
REHMArjun, let's talk about France. They've been involved in nuclear power since 1973. They now have a great deal of their power dependent upon nuclear plants. How much? How successful?
MAKHIJANIWell, I think they've, you know, run their nuclear industry from the power generation side about as well as it can be done, not that they haven't had problems. And I am a critic of the French system in terms of waste management. That's well-known. I've published a lot. But, you know, I think there's -- if you make a comparison, there's a real reluctance to shut down reactors for safety reasons. I mentioned Davis-Besse. The problems were known that reactors should have been shut down and inspected.
MAKHIJANIThe French actually had sent a note, as I mentioned, to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about corrosion. And at the time they sent that note -- in the mid '90s, I think it was -- they decided to replace the reactor vessel heads on 40-odd reactors. And they spend hundreds of millions of dollars doing it, and I think that process is now complete. And the United States had replaced one, so far as I'm aware. Matt covers that more than me, maybe more than one.
WALDThere've been a variety, but the only one they let slip too long was Davis-Besse.
MAKHIJANIWas Davis-Besse, and it was replaced post facto. And, I think, since then, the inspections have, you know, probably been toned up some about corrosion. But Davis-Besse has now got another unexpected corrosion problem that Matt has written about.
WALDThis is true although they found it quickly this time. Right?
MAKHIJANIYeah, they found it better this time. But they're allowing the reactor to operate even though it's got this corrosion problem.
REHMArjun Makhijani, he's president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Scott Peterson, from your perspective, how did the Three Mile Island disaster affect people's thinking about nuclear power?
PETERSONWell, I think it's -- it was certainly a traumatic event to the public psyche, not so much, you know, from the health and safety prospects of people who live near that plant -- and there's been 30 years of research done that showed very little health impacts from that accident. What it really did for the industry was provide a wakeup call and what we needed to do in terms of operations of the plant, the training of the reactor operators that do that and the internal oversight of our industry, putting the internal pressure on ourselves to do the right things in terms of operation.
REHMAnd do you think that was done sufficiently?
PETERSONAbsolutely. There's the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations that provides that internal oversight. And the key to that is frequent visits to look at what's happening at the plants and holding the chief executives of those companies directly responsible. When the president's commission on the BP oil spill was looking for a model at what the oil industry can do to enhance safety for deep water drilling, they called the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations and to testify and lay out what the industry did 30 years ago to make us really the safest part of the electricity sector today. They're willing to learn those lessons.
REHMArjun, what is your greatest concern?
MAKHIJANIWell, about this thing, I -- first, let me agree with Scott. I think, after Three Mile Island, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations did have better training programs. I think we have better trained operators, and there were a lot of lessons learned that still endure. So that's a good thing. My concern is, I think, that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has forgotten the lessons of Three Mile Island and is -- for 15 years, they were a lot more vigilant than they are today. And I think there is a real reluctance to deprive operators of that cash flow when that plant is going as opposed to when it is shut down.
MAKHIJANII think we're allowing -- for example, we're allowing some safety equipment to be maintained while the reactor is operating. In the old days, I think the safety equipment was maintained when the reactor was being refueled. Now, the refueling times have become much shorter because there's a pressure to put the reactor back online. I'm not saying companies shouldn't make money. This is -- you know, it's a capitalist economy. And if we don't make money, you can't maintain the plant, for example. But I do think that the oversight -- there's a lot of self-inspection, self-risk assessment, self-reporting, not adequate reporting in a timely fashion. And all these leaks and so on are evidence that the system isn't working.
REHMAt the same time, you've got a new Republican Congress absolutely determined to cut back federal spending. How might that affect the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the other commissions that are out there?
WALDWell, most of the NRC's budget comes from the industry. You pay several million dollars a year for your operating license. The Republican House -- the Republicans want all kinds of contradictory things. John McCain wanted 35 new reactors. Lamar Alexander wants 100. But they also don't want cap-and-trade, so this is a mixed message for the nuclear industry. I'm not sure -- I don't think it means very much, to be honest.
PETERSONDiane, let me put the...
REHMGo ahead, Scott.
PETERSON…regulation of our plants in perspective for your listeners because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at every plant has a minimum of two resident inspectors who walk that plant every day and provide about 3,800 hours of inspection each year for every nuclear plant in this country. If there are issues that are happening at that plant that they want to pay more attention to, they'll send different inspection teams to complement that.
REHMNow, isn't that enough, Arjun?
MAKHIJANIWell, it hasn't been enough, you know. And there are these exhibits. What happened at Braidwood? Why was that tritium leak not reported until there was an uproar about it?
REHMHow do you answer that, Scott?
PETERSONWell, the reporting mechanisms at that time were different, where the utilities had a responsibility to report once a year into the state agencies. And they did that. What we've done as an industry is totally overhaul that system, and so we have real time reporting when we have this kind of events at our plants now.
REHMScott Peterson is vice president for communications of the Nuclear Energy Institute. Short break, and then your calls. We'll be right back.
REHMAnd we're going to open the phones now. First to Donald, who's in Southern New Hampshire. Good morning to you.
DONALDYes. I just want to make a point about the two kinds of nuclear reactors in the United States. First is the boiling water reactor, which is Vermont Yankee, and then there's another one in my area, which is a pressurized water reactor in Seabrook. And the boiling water reactors tend to be a lot dirtier, have a lot more radioactive components in them, and have a lot more area exposed to the radioactive water. So they tend to have problems with the tritium leaks and the things you've been hearing about, where the pressurized water reactors -- a lot less is exposed to radioactivity, and they don't have as many problems. And it's my understanding that most of the new plants that have applied for licenses are going to be the pressurized water resigns -- design which tends to have more problems. And I'd like the guests to comment on this.
WALDThe caller is absolutely correct that there are two types and that the radiation is not quite as tightly held in in the boiling water reactor. I think if you look at the electric industry generally, and you see we're going to rely more on intermittent renewables, it creates some case for the boiling water reactors because they can vary their output more easily than the pressurized water reactors can. But the caller is also correct that most of the proposed new reactors are pressurized, not boilers.
MAKHIJANIYeah, I think the two types of reactors have different tritium problems and different sort of radiation issues. The caller is right, that boiling water reactors, you know, they run somewhat slightly radioactive water through the turbines and are more contaminated parts. But the routine releases of tritium from pressurized water reactors are much bigger because they generate more tritium in the course of their operation. We haven't talked about routine releases and drinking water.
MAKHIJANIFor instance, all nuclear power plants release radioactive water through their stacks routinely and discharge radioactive water into the surface water or lakes around them. It's below the drinking water limits, but it is radioactive water. Some of it does wind up in drinking water, as it did downstream of Braidwood. This is not leaks. This is routine discharges, and it simply goes with the territory.
REHMAnd how do we know what effects it could have on health? Or do we?
MAKHIJANIWell, you know, we know the existing science about cancer and radiation risk is the best science that we have, is that every increment of radiation causes an increment of risk. We have drinking water maximum contaminant limits, but we know that they incur a small amount of cancer risk -- not huge, but small, not zero. There are some health effects that we don't look for. We look -- we regulate to cancer. So, for instance, radioactive water will cross the placenta. We have no idea if it gives rise to early failed pregnancies. We don't know because we're not looking, and it's very hard to look.
PETERSONDiane, Arjun raises a lot of questions without answering any of them. But I can tell you that we have very sophisticated environmental monitoring programs around each of our nuclear power plants that test water, test vegetations from farms, test livestock. So we know that our facilities are safe. We have standards that we have to meet that are imposed either by the NRC or by the Environmental Protection Agency regarding our facilities, and we meet those standards. So I can tell you, and public health departments and the states can tell you, that there is no danger from those nuclear power plants in terms of human health.
REHMScott, how do you know what to look for? That's Arjun's question.
PETERSONThere's a very specific monitoring program that samples on a regular basis water on the plant site, water off the plant site, milk, eggs, produce, farm animals if there are farms in that area. It's a regular sampling program that we have and that the state where those plants are located have to see and make sure that there is no radiation above the federal limits that we have to meet going off that site. And, in fact, they're very, very low.
WALDJust to clarify. We don't, in fact, know that every increment of radiation adds an increment of risk. We assume that because the effect is too small to measure in the general population.
MAKHIJANIWell, that's what I said. It's the best science there is.
REHMAll right. To Venice, Fla. Good morning, Brad.
BRADGood morning. And thank you for taking my call.
BRADI went to work at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from a national laboratory on a loan program in 1973, expecting to stay there only two years and not thinking I would like the work. But I was so impressed with the quality of the engineering that was being done there, I ended up staying there 'till I retired -- almost 30 years later. And one of the things that I would like to just comment on -- you were talking about the safety limits as set by the government for the nuclear plants.
BRADSafety goals were something that went through a very large evolution during, probably 10 or 15 years there. And one of the ways that was developed in order to establish a safety standard to be used for radioactive releases and accidental releases and so forth was to compare the kind of releases you might expect from a plant with those that we have everyday from other sources, natural radiation and chemical effects on cancer.
BRADSafety goals were developed, which established a much lower fraction allowed by a nuclear power plant compared to these other sources. And this seemed to be the best way to establish a standard that could be applied. The plants are monitored very carefully. And I think that if questions ever come up, they should be encouraged to be answered completely. I never saw, while I was there, any attempt to try to cover up anything. Certainly, mistakes are made, like at Davis-Besse and Vermont Yankee. But compared to all the other industrial activities we have in this country and in the world, I think the established safety records of nuclear is very good.
REHMThanks for your call. What about that, Arjun?
MAKHIJANIWell, I think, if you compare it to the chemical industry and the coal industry, as I said earlier, I mean, there's no comparison in terms of the routine effects. I think the allowed regulatory limits of radiation discharges from nuclear power plants are quite low in terms of their -- as low as reasonably achievable limits. I think we know a lot more about radiation than we know about chemicals. So I think, on a relative basis, the caller is right. What we're talking about is this is an industry where, if there is a very severe accident, that could -- that's what you're trying to avoid. You're trying to avoid an accident on the scale of Chernobyl.
REHMAll right. And to Eau Claire, Wis. Good morning, Ken.
REHMGo right ahead.
KENOkay. My question is, I watched a program on public television about Charlie Rose, where they had the CEO of a French company that's supposedly the largest in the world producing and operating atomic power plant. And the lady made a statement that back in the Carter administration they made a decision for safety reasons to keep our spent fuel rods and store them forever underground somewhere as a way of controlling the risks associated with those getting in to the wrong hands. She tried it herself, that in France, they recycled 97 percent of their fuel rods. I'd like the panels to comment on that.
WALDWe have a Blue Ribbon Commission looking at that right now, appointed by the president after we decided not to proceed with Yucca Mountain. I, frankly, don't think that would gain the United States a whole lot. At the moment, uranium is cheaper than the plutonium that you scavenge from those fuel rods as the French do. And after you've done the scavenging, the remaining waste is a little harder to handle, and the French also do not have a final disposal spot. We may end up doing this in a few hundred years. It doesn't look very appealing at the moment.
REHMTo Brookport, Ill. Good morning, Mark.
MARKGood morning. I -- my comment is that when folks are saying that nuclear power is cheaper and cleaner, they're totally ignoring where the fuel comes from -- the fuel cycle. Right now, there's one enrichment plant operating in the country. It gets fed by a plant, a conversion plant, which creates uranium hexafluoride gas. That is fed by a plant that makes the yellowcake when they mine the uranium. All of these facilities are highly polluted. The enrichment plant in Paducah is being -- they're -- it already cost billions of dollars in trying to clean it up.
MARKIt's nowhere even close to being cleaned up. They have to transport this material, which is extremely heavy, in trucks. All this is being powered by fossil fuels, plus the cost of the cleanup and the transportation of this very heavy material all over the place between yellowcake conversion, enrichment, fabrication, and to just ignore that, like that doesn't even exist, is completely unrealistic.
PETERSONJust for the caller and others, the University of Wisconsin did a study looking at life cycle greenhouse gases from all of the fuel sources that generate electricity. When you consider, as the caller said, mining, enrichment, building the plant, operating it, storing the fuel and decommissioning it, nuclear power plants are actually among the lowest greenhouse gas producers on a life cycle basis down there with hydropower and some other renewables. So when you look at a life cycle examination of greenhouse gases, we are still very much one of the leaders in the emission-free electricity.
PETERSONThe thing I'd add on the enrichment process is some of the electricity comes from Tennessee Valley Authority's nuclear plant, so you can't just say that it's a fossil plant feeding that system. The last thing I'll say is we're maximizing the use of uranium in the marketplace by using uranium that's been downblended from Russian weapons and actually using that in our reactors here, and so we've already taken about 12,000 Russian warheads out of circulation, taken the uranium from those warheads and are actually using them to fuel our cities.
PETERSONSo the weapons that used to be aimed at our cities are now powering them.
REHMTo Jamestown, Ind. Good morning, Betsy. Thanks for joining us.
BETSYThank you. Back in the late '70s, I was part of a group here in Indiana called Paddlewheel Alliance, and we successfully stopped both Marble Hill and Bailly Nuclear Power Plants and kept Indiana nuke-free. So you can probably tell what side of the fence I'm calling from. I have a couple of questions for your guests. They keep referring to the low-cost production of nuclear energy, but they haven't touched on anything about the fact that the decommissioning costs are not figured into that rate. I'd also like them to speak to the leak at Hanford and the radiation that did get out into the groundwater. And, more specifically, I would like them to speak to the Price-Anderson Act and explain to the people of this country, that if there is an accident, that the nuclear power industry will not be held responsible. Thank you.
REHMWhy don't you take that, Matt?
WALDWell, let me start with Price-Anderson.
WALDI was interested to see that people have revised that idea for the oil industry. Price-Anderson means each operator -- in this case, reactors -- has to participate, and if there's a claim above a certain amount, each reactor has to pay in. So it's not correct that the industry wouldn't be penalized. It's that each reactor would have to pay for the other guy's mistake. This is a form of peer pressure along with INPO. It's not such a bad model. It is true that if the damage were to rise above a certain number of billions, the taxpayer would be on the hook. I don't know if it's -- how likely it is we're ever going to get to a problem that big. I think, also, Hanford isn't quite relevant -- it's a military plant.
REHMMatthew Wald, he is a reporter for The New York Times. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Arjun, do you want to comment?
MAKHIJANIYeah, the liability limit currently, collectively, is about $11 billion -- its index for inflation. In the late '90s, the Brookhaven National Lab, which is -- which belongs to the Department of Energy. The taxpayer did a study of the maximum accident damage in a fully loaded spent fuel pool, and they concluded that the maximum damages would be $500 billion. Now, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission looked at this, and they didn't say that calculation is wrong. They just said the probability is very low.
MAKHIJANIAnd that's exactly the kind of problem we had with this BP. Before this bill, they said, the probability is so low, we don't have to install a second one of these blowout preventers. And we save half a million dollars if we do that. And this whole question of low probability catastrophic outcome is a very, very difficult thing for us to wrestle with.
PETERSONThat's an absolutely ridiculous comparison when you're looking at the BP issue with what we do with our nuclear power plants and the safety there. But I will say this about the Price-Anderson Act, and it's a framework that is -- that works. It's been approved by Congress and re-approved. And the industry is responsible for the first two tiers of coverage there that go into the billions of dollars in Congress. If they need more, will not necessarily go automatically to the taxpayer. They can come back to the industry and put another levy on us to pay for that. So it is a framework that has been tested over time and actually is used as a model for other industries.
REHMA ridiculous comparison, Matt?
WALDI don't really know if we can get the multi-hundreds of billions of dollars accident in the United States. I don't think we can get Chernobyl in the United States. I think the oil industry would certainly benefit from a Price-Anderson-style setup and an Institute of Nuclear Power Operation setup. Think about if this well had not been owned by BP. If it had been owned by some pip-squeak oil company with no assets, we'd be in deep trouble. The nuclear industry...
REHMWe're already in deep trouble.
WALDAt least there's money to fix what can be fixed.
REHMWell, but everybody is...
WALDIt'd be worse without money.
REHMEverybody is blaming everybody else. BP is blaming Blackwater. Blackwater is blaming BP.
WALDThat will always happen, but let me advise you. If you walk out on the street and get hit by a car, you better hope the guy driving it is rich so you can collect from him.
MAKHIJANIYou know, I think a large part of this problem is, how do you deal with low probability catastrophic events? It's true that the risk of a Chernobyl-scale accident is lower here. We're better regulated than the Soviets ever were. The Soviets have had giant accidents both in the military and the civilian sphere. And we've, fortunately, been spared that kind of accident. But if you go back from the '50s onward to the present, the regulatory evaluation of these reactors and the design of these reactors, the question is, can we have an accident...
REHMAnd the age...
MAKHIJANI...of this scale?
REHMAnd the age of these reactors, Scott.
WALDThat is what is worrying me.
PETERSONLet me be clear because we don't have the kind of design that the Chernobyl reactor was in this country...
PETERSON...nor in the Western Hemisphere...
PETERSON...so that accident cannot happen (word?).
REHMHowever, the age of these reactors is of great concern to a lot people, I would think. And the ongoing regulatory investigation of their safety has got to be a priority.
PETERSONI don't think we really learned how to run them well for the first 10 or 15 years. And we really don't know how long they'll run, but I think when we give up, it'll be an economic decision.
REHMMatthew Wald, a reporter who covers nuclear power issues for The New York Times, Arjun Makhijani, he's president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, and Scott Peterson, vice president for communications at the Nuclear Energy Institute. Thank you all so much.
MAKHIJANIThank you, Diane.
PETERSONThank you, Diane.
WALDThank you, too, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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