RFF President Phil Sharp on America's Nuclear Future

Apr 1, 2011 | RFF Staff

Below is an edited excerpt from the Q&A with Phil Sharp

Krupnick: This question of the nuclear waste storage is important because in the Fukushima meltdown, the waste was stored in pools of water and some of that leaked. In utilities in the United States, some waste is likewise stored in pools of water and it’s also stored in cement casks. Do you think that these technologies are reasonably safe?

Sharp: Well, I’m not the person who can technically judge if they’re reasonably safe. What I try to make sure is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the industry, and others are under intense scrutiny and pressure to make sure these technologies are as safe as we can make them.

In Fukushima, what happened was that some of the water might have been thrown out of the pools which, in this particular case and this particular design, were at a higher level on the upper floor of the reactor. That is not common design in the United States, where spent fuel pools are typically found at ground level and in the ground. That doesn’t mean there can’t be problems. If the water escapes and the fuel rods heat up, they throw radiation and particles into the atmosphere, which is very dangerous. That’s what we have to protect against.

We have about 20 or 23 reactors in the United States out of 104 that have that a similar design to the spent fuel pool on the upper floor in Fukushima. As industry in the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and other institutions that oversee nuclear power in this country begin looking closely at our spent fuel pools, they will be asking questions like, “How long do you need to have rods inside the pool? How compact should the rods be inside the pool? Is the design of the reactors themselves as safe as it could be?”

Hear more from Phil Sharp about spent fuel pools and dry cask storage (MP3).

Krupnick: You’ve heard about governments shutting down plants in various countries, and people are talking about taking much more comprehensive actions. What do you think about those steps? Do you think this is wise, or is this happening too quickly?

Sharp: First of all, I wouldn’t try to judge whether the Germans shutting down seven plants was the appropriate thing. They need to make that decision.

I think it’s important to separate out different activities. First, the immediate response, both by industry and by government, was to “re-verify,” as they call it: go back and check. This means answering questions like, “Are you ready to deal with a flood? Are you ready to deal with seismic activity? Are you ready to deal with loss of all electric power? Are you ready to deal with the kinds of things that happened in Japan?”  That’s just making sure we’re “on the ball.” The broader question is of how this will affect policy.

Of course it’s very early to speculate, but let me suggest some things that I think are likely to happen on that front. First, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already made it clear that it’s going to go back to the drawing board on the seismic calculations for various power plants around the country. There are a number of plants that are in earthquake zones, but the earthquakes are usually considered quite minor and so the plants have been designed and built to take it. However, considering Fukushima was miscalculated, it’s important to go back and check these things. Certainly a couple of power plants have already been targeted in the news media and by others as being in high-probability zones. One possibility is that they, over time, would get shut down. I’m not saying they will. But clearly that analysis will be done.

Hear more from Phil Sharp about license extensions for existing power plants. (MP3)

Krupnick: So, Phil, there’s also concern about the effects on new power plant construction. The Energy Information Administration has projected quite a significant building program for nuclear power plants. What do you think the implications will be in this regard? And if planning and construction are to be slowed down by all of this, what do you this means for our energy future?

Sharp: My gut judgment at this point—and we may learn more about this accident that makes it even worse than it is—is that this is not a showstopper. This is not going to mean no more nuclear power plants here or in India or in China, where there a number of plants under construction. However, there will definitely be more of a political movement in this country aiming to halt licensing of new power plants.

What’s important to recognize is that it’s unlikely these events themselves will slow down the building of power plants here because they’ve already been delayed for a variety of other reasons. With the recession, electricity demand dropped and so the timetable for need was pushed off in many regions of the country, especially in the Southeast. Another reason, of course, is that the capital costs were huge and so the industry and investors were getting a little skittish about how many to work toward. Finally, and more importantly, is the conventional wisdom about the new natural gas supply. It is a lot cheaper to construct a power plant powered by natural gas than a nuclear plant, and as long as that natural gas appears to be cheap, it remains highly competitive and is more likely to edge out many of these new power plants.

A lot of people believe that Three Mile Island brought an end to new construction of nuclear power plants in the United States. And it is true that the last application for a new plant was five years prior, but more than 40 plants were under construction and came to completion after Three Mile Island—and those plants implemented a variety of changes that were imposed upon them by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And, there were many plants that did not get built for one reason or another, possibly in part because of the accident, but we actually did go forward here in the United States after Three Mile Island.

Krupnick: We just had the one-year anniversary of the Macondo well spill. From work that Resources for the Future has done, we’re seeing that industry and the regulators were not very well prepared for a major event like that. What about the nuclear industry? Is the nuclear industry in a different situation?

Sharp: The nuclear industry stands out among all industries in the world in terms of the amount of attention that is given and the amount of criticism and oversight that it faces in order to work toward and maintain safety. You have to protect the people that work in these plants, and you have to protect the populations at large. The good thing is that many of the risks were at least recognized from the outset, and we continue to learn and give very careful attention to oversight.

What we’ve developed in this country is a system of layers, an array of institutions that help provide that oversight. Even within individual nuclear power plants, there often exist safety review boards, which act and operate semi-independently. More importantly, however, is the fact that they are subject to scrutiny from outside. The federal government has the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with on-site inspectors.  Then the industry, after Three Mile Island, set up something called INPO—the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations—which actually is very aggressive in evaluating what’s going on in power plants, conducting regular audits, and training personnel. INPO instantaneously went to work after Fukushima with its knowledge-sharing program. If you have a problem in your power plant with a valve and you can’t figure out what’s going on, you can very quickly find out every other power plant in this country that has the same valve and how to work on it. That just doesn’t exist in most other industries in this country.

Hear more from Phil Sharp about the importance of third-party oversight. (MP3)

Krupnick: Finally, there’s a perspective I’ve heard that’s interesting. It says, “We’ve had a 9.0 earthquake. We’ve had a 46-foot wall of water come across that plant. And compared to the expectation you would have of such an event happening—and such an improbable event—there was relatively little damage, and relatively little exposure of radiation to the environment. So actually the system worked fairly well.” Do you think that’s a fair perspective?

Sharp: I think it’s an important perspective. I mean, nobody can diminish the significance of this event. But at the same time, when we look at this unbelievable tragedy, at this point we’re only aware that two people in the power plants were actually killed. That was not because of radiation. Whereas tragically, at this point, we’re aware of more than 13,000 deaths, not from the nuclear event, but from the tsunami and earthquake—and that is expected to climb much higher.

Also, we are yet to hear of any real cases of radiation sickness. If you remember about Chernobyl, there were very quick deaths. There were a very large number of people who suffered from radiation sickness, and there continues to be long-term damage. We do not yet know the full impact of Fukushima.

I think it’s important to recognize that the Japanese government moved people out to reduce their potential exposure. There’s argument over whether it’s actions were fast enough and far enough; but there were a number of ways it was prepared to act.  In the United States every plant has major plans in place to deal with an accident and the level of preparedness will get new scrutiny in the months ahead.

If you’re concerned, as I am, about climate change and the need to have massive quantities of electricity—as we require to run our modern economies—then we need to keep the nuclear option open. I certainly don’t believe nuclear is the answer to climate change but it may prove to be an important part of our energy portfolio in the future. Whatever its future, the technology requires constant vigilance to ensure safety. ​