Interview with J. Scott Peterson from Nuclear Energy Institute about security aspects of nuclear energy, nuclear industry in the United States and the prospects of nuclear energy in the future.
J. Scott Peterson serves as Senior Vice President for Communications at Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in Washington, DC, where he directs all NEI communications programs, including media relations, branding and advertising. He has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today as well as many industry publications, and has appeared on CNN, ABC News, CNBC, National Public Radio and World Business Review. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina and completed the Reactor Technology Program for Utility Executives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
How difficult is it to be a proponent of the nuclear energy in the world where the public opinion seems to be less favourable towards it, especially after the events in Japan? Have you noticed some impact on you work after Fukushima disaster?
It is actually an interesting time to be a proponent of the nuclear energy, both in America and worldwide, because there is a growing recognition in many parts of the world that nuclearenergy is essential to diversify the electricity mix. The industry is building 71 reactors across the world at the moment and there is a clear recognition that an expansion is needed. The countries that use nuclear energy today will continue to use it despite the accident in Fukushima, with a few notable exceptions of Germany and some plants in Japan. There is a tremendous amount of interest in energy broadly and also in nuclear energy as we start to make some advancements in technology developing a new generation of reactors. So I find being a proponent of nuclear energy to be very rewarding. There is a lot of support around the world; even in some places you wouldn’t expect it. Also, in the U.S., there is a growing support across all the political parties. It might be for different reasons, but certainly the availability of nuclear energy as a response to climate change is one of them.
Is it possible to generalize which party in the U.S. is more favourable toward nuclear energy?
Broadly speaking, Republicans are traditionally more favourable toward nuclear energy than Democrats, but that gap is closing rapidly. We also have a large number of people who are politically independent and they are in many cases as supportive as Republicans. What used to be a wide gap has closed significantly and I really believe that climate change is one of the issues driving that closure.If we want our economy to continue growing, we need to expand our electricity sector. And if we are serious about reducing greenhouse gases, than we have to be serious about expanding nuclear energy along with other non-emitting sources of electricity. There has been a significant discussion in the U.S. about what it would take to reduce our CO2 level. And every time the Senate asked for an independent piece of analysis about what needs to be done, the higher a potential reduction of CO2 was in that analysis, the more nuclear energy was required.
President Obama made the climate policy one of the priorities for his second term. How likely is he going to succeed?
Climate change is a very difficult issue in the U.S. There are not only political differences among the parties but also regional differences among the states depending on how electricity is produced in that region. For example, there is fairly significant opposition from the coal-producing states and their members in the Congress to climate change policy. It is a good opportunity for the President to revive the climate change debate in the U.S., but it will be a long and difficult discussion when you consider all the factors that have to be balanced. On the other hand, many states already have renewable portfolios that are growing and some states have clean energy development standards that include nuclear energy as one way to mitigate carbon. We could therefore say that the U.S. is moving in that direction. The preference from the industry would be to see that debate occurring in the Congress rather than be regulated through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In this sense, President Obama’s policy regarding climate change is a good step forward.
Renewable sources are able to make very cheap energy but not permanently. On the contrary, the nuclear power plant has to be running all the time because it is very expensive to halt the whole process. How can you combine these two factors together? Is it possible to have simultaneously nuclear reactors and produce a lot of energy from renewable sources?
Actually, I think that this is the optimal blend. If you look at the combination of strong base-load power sources you have 24/7, which is mostly nuclear energy and natural gas, and then add renewables as a complement to that, that is the blend we are looking at in the U.S. right now. The value of nuclear energy stems from the fact that its fuel cost is very low compared to other sources. The fuel cost represents 15 to 20 % of total price of electricity from nuclear plants. Natural gas on the other hand is 80-85 % fuel cost. So the fluctuation of the natural gas prices on global market has a direct impact on the customer. There should always be balancing in the energy portfolio. However, when you look at doing that nationally, it is very difficult to mandate. The U.S. is not much different than the EU in that respect. We have 50 states that have energy policies and we are trying to bring that together into national energy policy. This is very difficult because of regional differences. It is very much like the EU with different member states and their vastly different energy policies.
Let’s return to Fukushima disaster. What impact did it have on American public opinion about nuclear energy?
It had a fairly significant impact for the short term. According to the public opinion polls of our organisation, there has been about 65 to 70 % support among public for nuclear energy in the last decade. Shortly after the Fukushima disaster, it fell as low as 46%. However, in the two years since the accident it has steadily raised back up to 68%. The public in the U.S., as well as in many other countries, took a step back and paused in order to reassess nuclear energy, partially because of tremendous media exposure in March 2011. But with people learning more about the industry’s response to Fukushima, the confidence in nuclear energy has been restored. We also communicated very aggressively to the public the steps we were taking to reassess the safety of our reactors, particularly against severe natural events such as earthquakes or floods. We learned from the Japanese disaster and we’re in the process of implementing a series of requirements mandated by our regulator. We have added about 1 500 pieces of equipment at our sites, which basically provide a 6th and 7th layer of safety backups. The problem in Fukushima was that the plant lost all the power to operate safety systems: we already have about five different stages of backup power and we’re adding more.
Do you think that Fukushima disaster might have any long-term consequences for nuclear industry?
I don’t think it will for the public, but the U.S. industry is taking the right steps to incorporate lessons learned for the long term. In fact, we have continually upgraded safety at our reactors after the significant international or domestic events. We upgraded our safety and operators training after the Three Mile Island accident. In the case of Chernobyl, we analysed the situation there and added safety upgrades even though the design of our plants was different. And then after the 09/11 terrorist attacks, we made significant physical changes to our security. So this process is evolutionary in terms of adding safety and security measures and we are very seriously and intentionally looking at different events in the world to make sure that all the possibilities are considered in our safety and security models.
You just mentioned Three Mile Island (TMI). Is there still some influence of this event on the current U.S. nuclear debate?
I don’t believe so. It’s now 34 years since TMI and for the current generation, it doesn’t mean very much. I think we have gone beyond the point where TMI is this sort of stigma for the industry. In the 34 years since then, we’ve proven that we can operate our plants safely. That event led to the improvement of our safety standards and especially trainingstandards for our operators as it was an operator issue that caused this accident. Since then, all of the industry’s training programs must be accredited in a way university programs are, and all of our reactor operators have to go through a training in a simulator every fifth week no matter how many years of experience they have. So we made some significant adjustments and now we train our operators and prepare them to react to any situation that may occur, whether normal or abnormal.
You also mentioned the terrorist attacks from September 11. Could you specify how it influenced nuclear industry in the U.S.?
September 11 has had an impact on physical security of nuclear plants. In fact, our industry was regulated in terms of physical security even before 9/11, actually one of the few industry sectors that was. But the security requirements have been significantly enhanced after 9/11. Since then, we have spent about 2 billion dollars to upgrade physical security at our sites: a lot of detection and access technology, significant physical enhancements, etc. They look more like prisons now than power plants: fences, razor wires, guard towers and thousands of armed officers who carry more than one weapon. We also undertook significant analyses looking at potential aircraft impact on all of our nuclear plant designs. Those analyses showed that even if you strike the weakest part of containment vessel, the reactor fuel would be safe because the containment building would absorb or deflect most of the impact. There are several walls before you actually get to the reactor and we have robust construction in place to protect the reactor. The containment buildings are 4-5 feet thick so they can stop the plane. We also looked at the fuel pools where spent fuel is held. Even spent fuel containers are able to withstand the impact from the plane, although it would be virtually impossible to hit them by an airplane at full speed coming down to the ground.
Last fall the American Congress failed to adopt a bill that would set minimal cyber security standards for companies operating critical infrastructure. Do you personally see cyber threats as a potential security risk for nuclear sector?
We take cyber security very seriously. In fact, we’ve been working on cyber security and have had programs in place now for ten years. Moreover, in past few years our regulator (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission) has increased the requirements for nuclear plants. I think the significant issue for nuclear power plants is that they are not connected to the Internet in any way. Our threat is not one that electricity grids in general or banks connected to the Internet might have, but it is a physical security issue. It is a question of preventing people from getting access to our systems inside the plant. We need to make sure that they have a very good business reason for being at the site and we’ve scanned whatever data source they have and might potentially put into our systems. For instance we have encryption software that can scan portable data pieces before they are put into any of our equipment.
Let´s move to a quite different topic now. One of the most discussed issues concerning nuclear energy is the storage of used nuclear fuel. Do you think this problem might be solved or reduced somehow in the future or it will always remain a negative aspect?
There is technology in place to manage this material, whether your philosophy is to take the used fuel out and simply store it or to take the fuel out and recycle it. In both cases, the technology exists. In the U.S. we are using the disposal method. It’s basically storage in alloy containers in a geological formation that is dry, which is the key point because you don’t want those canisters to corrode. Then you have recycling, which occurs in some countries today. There is a lot of research in different ways to recycle and we’re looking at that in the U.S. because we are interested to see if there is a process that will be more proliferation resistant. However, recycling is not economic for the U.S. right know given the vast supply of uranium and its relatively stable and low price. We will therefore continue with disposal of nuclear fuel, but we will do that in a way that if recycling does become economic, we can retrieve the fuel and recycle it. Storage and disposal of nuclear fuel is not a technological issue: it is more a political issue of sighting those facilities.
Czech government is preparing a contract for completion of 3rd and 4th nuclear blocks in Temelín. The Russian-Czech consortium MIR1200 and American Westinghouse are battling over this perhaps the largest contract in the history of Czech Republic. What benefits could the cooperation with American company bring to Czech Republic?
We believe that the U.S. exports the best technology as well as the model regulatory system and safety culture. In fact, the interaction between our regulators and, in this case, Czech regulators, is already happening and we are learning from one another. But I think most importantly we export the safety culture that we have in the U.S. industry and the training programs to establish it. We want to make sure that technology we transfer is taken care of and operated safely. In addition, we will bring the philosophy that Westinghouse has with the modular construction of the AP1000 facility. In the U.S., for example, Westinghouse builds AP1000 modules in Louisiana, and then ships them to the construction sites in Georgia and South Carolina. In that way, you are able to spread the economic benefits of that project far beyond the construction site and create thousands of jobs. Because the Czech Republic would be the first AP1000 project in the European Union, I think there is the possibility that the Czech Republic could serve as a construction point for other projects in the EU. In that case you could benefit not only from new reactors at Temelin, but also from extended economic development by becoming a modular construction site for other projects in the EU.
How do you assess the German decision not to use nuclear energy in the future? Is it realistic?
The German policy is sovereign one and they have a right to choose their energy policy. But you can already see the impact of that policy on electricity prices that have increased about 150 % in the last 10 years. Certainly, the vast majority of that increase was in the last 3-4 years. Furthermore, the tariffs on electricity have grown about 170 % to pay for renewable sources’ expansion. The Germans have overbuilt solar plants in some regions because of incentives that are offered, despite the fact that these plants are no longer needed in those areas and cannot get on the grid. You can also see the challenge to the tariff system that is largely placed on consumers and small to mid-sized businesses, but not on the industrial sector. There is now a legal challenge to the way the tariff is being implemented. So when you blend energy and environmental policy together in the EU and you have the 20-20-20 program that the EU is trying to meet, it will be difficult to do that in the country that does not have a base load supply of non-emitting electricity. A lot of people are therefore very interested in watching how German energy policy will play out.
How do you see the future of nuclear energy globally?
The future of nuclear energy is very bright. There are 71 reactors being built globally and they will add around 25 % more nuclear energy than we have today. Developing countries and new emerging economies such as Vietnam or Turkey are very interested in nuclear energy and working very closely with the IAEA on improving their infrastructure in order to manage nuclear energy safely. There are also exciting new developments in technology that will make nuclear energy more available, for instance small modular reactors. Instead of building 1000 or 1600 MW plants, you can start with 100-300 MW reactors and add additional ones incrementally as electricity demand increases, which is ideal for developing countries without large grids. There is a significant interest in them not only for electricity production but also for producing process heat for manufacturing, water desalination and for hydrogen that is used in chemical production. In the U.S., we expect those small modular reactors to be licensed by 2020. So when you look at designs we are building now, such as AP1000, the development of small modular reactors and research and development into generation 4 reactors, there is a very bright future for technological development in nuclear energy in the next 10 or 15 years. And there is definitely an appetite for nuclear energy when you look around the world. Perhaps the only remaining problematic issue for nuclear industry is the question of financing. There must be a process to finance these plants in a way that companies can afford to build them and that they can produce electricity for a reasonable price for consumers.
Authors: Juraj Nosál, master student of International Relations at Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University and Marek Hrdina, master student of International Relations and Energy Security thereof.