Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

May 26, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

Nuclear Energy


  • Go inside Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station as workers refuel the Unit 3 reactor and hear what an ASU expert has to say about the future of nuclear energy in Arizona and the U.S.
Guests:
  • Dr. Keith Holbert - Associate Professor, School of electrical, computer and energy engineering, Arizona State University


View Transcript
Ted Simons:
The nation's largest producer of nuclear energy is located right here in Arizona. Palo Verde nuclear generating station can produce 4,000 megawatts of electricity a Year. That's enough to meet the needs of four million people, roughly the size of Metro Phoenix. The United States hasn't built a nuclear plant for quite some time, but some people in the industry think nuclear energy is on the verge of making a comeback.

Randy Edington:
It is an exciting time because of the potential for further growth in nuclear. I think the public as a whole is much more aware of our energy needs and not just the short-term energy needs, but the long term. I think nuclear should be available piece of that, and the more people understand it and look into it, I think it is a very selective piece, a good piece, and I am looking forward to building more nuclear plants.

Ted Simons:
Joining me is Dr. Keith Holbert, an associate professor for the school of electrical, computer and energy engineering at Arizona state university.

Keith Holbert:
Thank you.

Ted Simons:
What is the state of nuclear power, nuclear energy in America and in the world?

Keith Holbert:
Let me start with the world. We like to think of ourselves in the U.S. as being ahead technologically. It turns out what is being referred to is the generation three nuclear power plants; we're actually a little behind. Japan, Taiwan, they're already building and have completely constructed the new generation of nuclear power plants. There is four in Japan, two -- two almost nearing completion in Taiwan. There is two more in Europe of a different type that -- a few years out now will be built. Here in the U.S. we have not built anything or finished a nuclear power plant since 1996. But if you go back and look at the reason for that, it actually -- a lot of people would point that the Three Mile Island accident, but if you take a closer look -- and Three Mile Island, keep in mind, was in March of 1979. But if you back yourself up a few years to 1973, and use that as a reference point, a few years before that, we were growing electric use-wise tremendously, like 7% per year. If you look and say I'm growing at 7% per year, when am I going to double? I'm going to double my electric use within 11 years. They're saying we are going to have to build a lot of power plants, large power plants and build them fast. Along came the oil embargo of 1973. Our use of electricity dropped to about 2.7%. Suddenly we didn't have all of that need any longer.

Ted Simons:
Interesting. You mentioned the new generation of power plants. How do they compare and contrast with what we remember being built decades ago?

Keith Holbert:
Well, I would think of them as evolutionary, not revolutionary. Evolutionary meaning we already have the technology. Let's build upon it rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. What you will see is advances in terms of new, more passively safe power plants. Passive safety meaning that it doesn't require activation of some system to keep the plant safe.

Ted Simons:
I have a quote here, and I want your comment on this. Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission says he sees no need to build new coal or nuclear plants. Is he right?

Keith Holbert:
I don't think he is right. I think it would be -- I think he is pointing towards green energy, renewables, and I think that is a very good thing to do is to have green power plants, but when we start looking, we need a balance, a portfolio, if you will, of power generation, and purely to have green energy, we have to think about, well, two leading green would be solar and wind. The wind does not blow all of the time. The sun does not shine all of the time. We need something that is available, what I would refer to as dispatchable. You can turn it on and off as needed.

Ted Simons:
We have a graphic that shows how much electricity is produced in different forms, and nuclear is up there. Do you see this kind of thing, like -- as we see here, a lot of little names up there, then you have coal and natural and nuclear. Do you see more of those little slices getting bigger or how do you see this?

Keith Holbert:
If you look at the graphic, if you go through the top three real quick, coal is half of our electricity. And then natural gas and nuclear basically 20% each. There is 90% of our electricity coming from those three. Hydro another six percent. Hydro won't change. We are not going to build any new, large-scale hydro units. Looking at coal, if we're serious about climate change, we are going to have to do something about the coal. We will have to have the carbon --

Ted Simons:
To build one right now doesn't make economic sense. Your thoughts.

Keith Holbert:
I would disagree with that. They are capital intensive. I would liken it to a hybrid car. You are going to have to pay more up front, but once you have that vehicle, in that case power plant, you are going to pay less for the fuel. The government has recognized the fact that nuclear power plants are capital intensive, and in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, they allocated $18.5 billion for really loan guarantees. Right now the Department of Energy has a whole list of applicants, and they are narrowing it down to three nuclear sites that they are going to guarantee the loans for building those power plants.

Ted Simons:
We have a graphic on proposed sites for nuclear facilities here in America. These again aren't sites online, these are proposed.

Keith Holbert:
Correct.

Ted Simons:
You know, we talk about cost prohibitive and that criticism. The other comes to safety. It always seems like this is there. Just where does that stuff go? Where does the waste from a power plant, a nuclear power plant go?

Keith Holbert:
Well, right now it stays there at the power plant. Initially after it comes out of the reactor core, it sits in a, what's called the spent fuel pool, and it cools down thermally and radioactive-wise. After a few years, it is cool enough thermally and radioactive wise to put it in what is called dry CASK storage there at the plant site. Ultimately the government has guaranteed they will take possession of the nuclear waste. As electric consumers, you and I have been paying on our electrical bill, they have amassed $30 billion -- they have promised to take the nuclear waste.

Ted Simons:
There still is -- have they -- the technology today is it considerably better in terms of safety than it was 20, 30 years ago?

Keith Holbert:
In terms of safety, I separate safety from the nuclear waste issue, the nuclear waste issue, where we're going to put the spent fuel is a political football in my mind. We're becoming smarter technologically to engineer things to be safer. When you look at even the Three Mile Island accident, the biggest loser was the utility in terms of the loss of their investment.

Ted Simons:
What is the future of nuclear energy in Arizona; let's start here, and in the rest of the country?

Keith Holbert:
I think in Arizona we won't see a new nuclear unit for a few years, to maybe like 2022, something like that, but where we will see new nuclear units will be the southeast within the United States. I mentioned the three contenders, if you will, for that D.O.E. funding. They're basically all in the southeast. The contenders for example, in south Texas, Maryland, the South Carolina, Georgia area. That will be the places I think we will see our first units. There is an interesting tidbit here. The Tennessee valley authority has decided to finish a unit that they ceased construction of in 1985. It will probably be the first new nuclear unit in about three years, maybe four, to come online in the 21st century in the U.S.

Ted Simons:
My goodness. Real quickly, the answer, do you see the answer, a lot of folks do, as diversifying? Real quickly, is that the way we have to go?

Keith Holbert:
Having a diverse portfolio is a smart idea, yes.

Ted Simons:
Very good. Thank you for joining us. We appreciate it.

Keith Holbert:
Thank you.

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