Whitman Strategy Group

Former Bush EPA chief says Watts Bar, nuclear power helps deal with climate change

by Dave Flessner, Chattanooga Times Free Press on 04-29-2015


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.”

SPRING CITY, Tenn. — To curb carbon emissions and global temperatures, a former EPA administrator under President George W. Bush said today that adding more reactors like the one TVA is building at its Watts Bar Nuclear Plant here are critical to America's future.

Christine Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who headed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003, said global warming from carbon emissions and other air pollutants from coal power plants are a national security concern and nuclear power can play a role in replacing such generation without harmful emissions.

"To think what we are putting into the atmosphere and the way we are changing the land isn't having an impact and exacerbating the natural trend toward global warming to a point where nature can't absorb it, I think, is naive," Whitman said. "You have 97 percent of scientists saying that the climate is changing and better than 50 percent of the American people saying they also believe the climate is changing based upon what they see around them with the floods, droughts and storms. I think they would like to see some action."Whitman, who toured the Unit 2 construction at Watts Bar here today, called TVA's work toward finishing the plant  "impressive" and said she hopes American utilities will continue to use nuclear power as part of the country's energy mix.

Mike Skaggs, a senior vice president at TVA who is heading the completion of Watts Bar Unit 2, said the unit is now 98 percent complete and TVA will begin hot functional testing of plant equipment next month. Pending approval of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, TVA should load nuclear fuel and start up the reactor by the end of the year.

"We feel good about meeting our schedule, but we won't be rushed into any action until we get all of our equipment and processes right," Skaggs said.

Despite the $4.2 billion pricetag to complete Watts Bar Unit 2 over the past eight years, the reactor  "is a good investment and I hope we will see more of these type plants to at least keep nuclear power at its current share (about 19 percent of electricity generation) for the future," Whitman said. 

"It's a huge and vital part of our clean energy future."

Whitman said nuclear plants, once built, can still provide power at less operating costs than fossil fuel generation and without the carbon emissions and air pollutants of coal, diesel, biomass or even natural gas.

Nuclear power requires utilities to take a longer ecoomic view given the length of time to built new reactors and their multi-billion-dollar expense.

"There is too much emhpasis on the short term cost reduction versus the long term savings," Whitman said.

Whitman, a co-chair of a pro-nuclear power group known as the Clean and Safe Enegy (CASEnergy) coalition, said nuclear power is gaining appeal around the globe with ambitious building plans for more reactors in China, Russia and other countries.

In the U.S., the Watts Bar Unit 2 reactor scheduled to start generating power by the end of 2015 or early 2016 will be the first new nuclear unit added to America's electricity grid in two decades,. Four other next generation reactors are now under construction in Georgia and South Carolina.

"You are seeing a lot of nuclear plants being built around the world because people are starting to deal with air quality issues and climate change," Whitman said. 

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