Whitman talks SMRs, Fort Calhoun, other nuclear issues in Q&A

GenerationHub interviewed Christine Todd Whitman, co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy) on Dec. 18. CASEnergy is a pro-nuclear group funded by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).

Whitman is a former governor of New Jersey and was administrator of EPA under President George W. Bush. Here’s is an edited version of that interview.

GHUB: What is your reaction to the NRC finding that Fort Calhoun nuclear power plant in Nebraska is ready to resume operation?

Whitman: It sends a very good signal that should make the public feel better because it is clear that NRC has done a very thorough analysis of the plant. It sends a good signal that nuclear is still going forward in the country.

GHUB: Was such a signal needed because of recent retirements?

Whitman: There are always going to be retirements and it’s always very much an economic decision on the part of the operator. There are always going to be comings and goings [of generation capacity]. But what it does is say there is a viable nuclear industry. When you have one that is getting the go-ahead and restart that sends a good message.

GHUB: Are you pleased with how construction of the new nuclear generation is coming along? Four new reactors are being built by utilities in Georgia and South Carolina and Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is completing one unit that was started but never finished.

Whitman: I think it’s a very good news story. There may be delays along the way with any project this big. But there has been nothing major. AP 1000s (the type of Westinghouse design being used by Southern and SCANA) are being built elsewhere in the world. That helps the U.S. utilities.

GHUB: What’s your reaction to recent Department of Energy award, this time to NuScale, for commercial development of small modular reactor (SMR) technology? Will SMRs become a commercial reality?

Whitman: I think there is a very good possibility that SMRs will be commercialized. I think we need to be a part of this [in the United States]. SMRs can be used in rural areas and solve a host of problems. We can’t keep saying, “it’s going to take too long so we don’t want to start.”

GHUB: What are a couple of the problems?

Whitman: Look at rural communities in the West and Alaska. Many small communities have limited electric transmission. Small modular reactors of 300 MW or less could serve such areas. Because of modern technology, they are easier to secure. They produce less waste. There is a lot that’s going for them. They are not 1,000-MW utility power reactors and will be cheaper and easier to deploy.

GHUB: Because they are smaller and less expensive than 1,000-MW reactors, could SMRs give nuclear power a chance to compete with gas for old coal plant sites?

Whitman: Oh Absolutely. Natural gas does offer low-cost energy. I have nothing against natural gas. We are going to need everything. The problem is that we’ve been here before. Natural gas prices have been low and then they’ve gone up again. We don’t want to be dependent on one source of energy. We need supply diversity to ensure reliable affordable power.

GHUB: NEI has said the White House should include nuclear in its climate change plan? What are your thoughts?

Whitman: The president has on a number of different occasions talked about nuclear and the importance of keeping it in the portfolio. This [omission of nuclear in the climate document] was more of a nod toward the environmental groups on renewables. Renewables are fine, but they need baseload, backup generation. Power demand should increase 28% in the next 35 years. It’s difficult to meet that goal given that renewables primarily offer peak shaving given today’s technology.

GHUB: Are you disappointed that nuclear power hasn’t made more headway in state legislatures during debate over climate change? MidAmerican said it couldn’t plan a new reactor without a U.S. carbon policy.

Whitman: It’s a stutter start for the industry right now. Natural gas is dominating although there is some worry in the public and the press about fracking. Nothing is without its downside there are always problems you can find with any technology. The climate has become a hot button issue. I’d just as soon nuclear be discussed in what it can provide in terms of reliability and its per-kilowatt costs. Nuclear has very good climate and air quality benefits as well. Climate, however, has become a partisan political issue.

GHUB: Will nuclear benefit from the carbon dioxide standards being developed by EPA for new and existing coal-fired power plants?

Whitman: It will benefit enormously if the EPA rules are upheld in court. The greenhouse rules should benefit nuclear power because it will increase the cost of bringing on new fossil fuel generation. Nuclear will benefit because it is so clean and regulators will see this.

GHUB: Nuclear seems to be having a really tough time in the Northeast? Why is this?

Whitman: Well first of all there is more pushback in New York. There is not quite as much in New Jersey. The Northeast is not experiencing the population growth of the Southeast although Maine might be increasingly concerned about the retirement of Vermont Yankee. You don’t want to end up like Germany. After closing reactors down Germany realized that costs are going to skyrocket.

Also the Southeast is projected to see growth in population and electricity demand. By contrast New Jersey recently lost a congressman because of declining population.

GHUB: Are nuclear stations also seen as a jobs program in the Southeast?

Whitman: Nuclear is very much a jobs program – and not just where you have the plant. It generates a lot of indirect jobs. Nuclear plant decisions are not based on job creation alone obviously but the job creation is not irrelevant.

GHUB: Does CASEnergy get involved in Yucca Mountain license debate?

Whitman: Case does not get involved in that. Personally, with taxpayers and ratepayers we have paid billions to get Yucca Mountain ready … I think we ought to go ahead with it. That’s unlikely while Harry Reid [D-Nev.] heads the Senate.

GHUB: Can U.S. nuclear vendors prosper while so much of nuclear power growth is happening in other nations?

Whitman: The United States is still benefitting, while we still would like to see more component parts built here. Many nuclear plants are being built in China and plenty of support jobs are being created in the United States.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.