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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Ex-EPA chief Whitman touts nuclear power for US

NASHUA – Although she was sitting halfway between a nuclear reactor in Seabrook that bankrupted a utility and one in Vermont embarrassed by leaks as it works to stay licensed, Christine Todd Whitman came to Nashua with an interesting message: Nuclear power must be part of America’s future.

“It’s not a silver bullet, it’s not the answer, not the only answer, but it should be part of the mix,” said Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and EPA head who is co-chair of CASE Energy Coalition, a group advocating development and construction of nuclear power. “The problems should not stop us from considering this as we go forward.” ...

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NASHUA – Although she was sitting halfway between a nuclear reactor in Seabrook that bankrupted a utility and one in Vermont embarrassed by leaks as it works to stay licensed, Christine Todd Whitman came to Nashua with an interesting message: Nuclear power must be part of America’s future.

“It’s not a silver bullet, it’s not the answer, not the only answer, but it should be part of the mix,” said Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and EPA head who is co-chair of CASE Energy Coalition, a group advocating development and construction of nuclear power. “The problems should not stop us from considering this as we go forward.”

Whitman, a Republican, was governor of New Jersey from 1994-2001 and head of the EPA under George W. Bush from 2001-03. For five years she has been with CASE, which is largely funded by the nuclear power industry and has a number of electric utilities on board.

Whitman spoke before The Telegraph’s editorial board Monday as part of a national media swing. She will be the keynote speaker at the Business and Industry Association’s energy seminar in Manchester on Tuesday.

In her talk with The Telegraph, Whitman hit on many points that CASE advocates, including:

Nuclear power makes up about 20 percent of the U.S. electricity generation, but the coming retirement of power plants that were built in the 1960s and ’70s means that many plants will have to be built just to stay at this level.

There are 104 operating nuclear reactors at 64 plants across the country. Many, including Vermont Yankee on the Connecticut River near Keene and Pilgrim Nuclear Station on Boston’s South Shore, have outlived their initial 40-year license and are trying to get those licenses renewed.

Vermont Yankee’s fate is complicated by a law that makes Vermont the only state with a voice in nuclear relicensing. Problems, including a leak of radioactive tritium into groundwater and the 2007 collapse of a cooling tower, have led to opposition in the state, which is being fought in the courts.

Seabrook’s current license lasts until 2026.

In February, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved licenses to build two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, the first authorized in more 30 years.

New technologies may mitigate some of the industry’s big problems, including the huge cost of construction that helped push PSNH into bankruptcy when it was building Seabrook Station, which is now owned by a Florida-based NextEra Energy. could be much smaller and cheaper than the Seabrooks of the world, because they can be built in larger numbers in a factory. This uniformity also may make them safer.

Notable is a high-stakes push to create modular reactors thatThe Obama administration recently said it would fund up to half the cost of a five-year project to design and commercialize such systems. Private investors, including Bill Gates, are funding some of the technologies.

Climate change gives a new urgency to the need for nuclear power. CASE was co-founded by Patrick Moore, an environmental activist who has become a proponent of nuclear power because of rising concern about the dangers of global warming caused by burning fossil fuels.

Few environmentalists have gone that far, but Whitman argued that global warming has turned many from being anti-nuclear to being more neutral.

“As the need becomes more important, the case for it is going to grow,” she said.

Whitman acknowledged that the biggest problem with nuclear power are the spent fuel rods, which no longer produce enough energy to be useful in the power plant but remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. They are a safety problem for the community and a target for terrorists because they can be used to create weapons.

Most power plants store their own fuel rods, a system that was supposed to be temporary. They are kept in water-filled pools at Seabrook and at Vermont Yankee, a system that proved vulnerable in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami. Seabrook is transferring some rods to “dry casks,” which are much less vulnerable to natural disasters because they don’t need circulating water to keep them from overheating.

The long-term solution was supposed to be storage at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but opposition and public pressure has put that on hold.

Whitman said CASE doesn’t advocate any particular solution, although she pointed to reprocessing of wastes done in France and Japan, both of which have traditionally been very dependent on nuclear power, a situation that is being reversed in Japan. Reprocessing is extremely expensive – $16 billion was a 2006 estimate by one private consultant, just for construction costs – and raises some concerns about the separation of plutonium, by far the most toxic byproduct of nuclear power.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks’ blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).