Go nuclear! That’s not only William Tucker’s suggestion to scientists — it’s also the key to securing America’s energy future. In his latest book, Terrestrial Energy, Tucker argues that nuclear power has the potential to revitalize America’s industrial economy with cheap, clean electricity. Below, he answers questions from National Review Online.
NRO: The title of your book: Terrestrial Energy – what’s that supposed to mean?
TUCKER: Terrestrial energy means nuclear energy comes from the earth, as opposed to the sun. We get 99 percent of our energy from the sun, but a small portion is also available from the heat of the earth. The internal temperatures of the earth reach 12,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than the surface of the sun. No one is exactly sure of the figure, but at least 50 percent, maybe as much as 90 percent, of that heat comes from the radioactive breakdown of uranium and thorium atoms in the earth’s crust. It’s an amazing testament to the power of nuclear energy. Together they form only about 0.000012 percent of the earth’s crust, yet they produce all that heat. It has always aggravated me that people tend to group together geothermal and solar as “alternative and renewable.” Geothermal energy is actually nuclear energy. I thought the term “terrestrial energy” expressed this best.
NRO: What’s holding up nuclear now? Why is it so difficult to get anything done in this country, when places like France and Japan are moving ahead?
TUCKER: A lot of it has to do with a sense of necessity. When the French went nuclear in the 1970s, they had a slogan: “We don’t have any oil, but we’ve got ideas.” Our slogan was, “We don’t have any ideas, but we’ve got lots of coal.” Pres. Jimmy Carter made a deliberate decision to abandon nuclear and promote coal. After all, we were the “Saudi Arabia of coal.” He promised we would double coal consumption to a billion tons a year by 2000, which is exactly what we did. At the time, nobody even thought of worrying about carbon dioxide.
The Japanese faced the same decision. They have no coal or oil and knew they needed something else. At the time, anti-nuclear people were arguing that nuclear power was a bastard technology of the bomb, and the only reason we were developing it was a sense of guilt over Hiroshima. Japan now gets a greater portion of its electricity from nuclear than we do, so you can see how legitimate that argument was. South Korea also has a very large nuclear component. Right now, of the 44 reactors under construction in the world, 28 are in Asia.
As for why nuclear is still moving so slowly in this country, I think we have a tremendous sense of overconfidence about our place in the world right now. We don’t think we have to hustle to get ahead. I was at the Idaho National Laboratory in 2006 and the Chinese delegation came through looking for advice on picking a nuclear technology. They finally chose Westinghouse — which, by the way, was subsequently bought by Toshiba. Those reactors are now under construction. With the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s glacial pace of review, and all the expected court challenges, it’ll be at least five years before we get shovels into the ground.
NRO: Is this all just bureaucracy or is there something particular about nuclear?
TUCKER: It’s both. With all the environmental and regulatory reviews, it’s hard to do anything anymore in this country – except, perhaps, put up a windmill. I’m amused when President Obama talks about rebuilding the electrical grid in order to bring wind and solar power from remote parts of the country. Utility companies say the only thing more difficult than trying to build a power plant in this country is trying to build a new transmission line. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a special case. It’s under such pressure because of fear of nuclear, it has tremendous incentive to follow the classic bureaucratic tactic — ask for more data, delay, and delay. It has beefed up its staff and is making a good effort at keeping these licensing procedures moving, but it’s still going to take three years to get a license application through the mill, and then anti-nuclear activists are rubbing their hands with glee, waiting to take them to court.
NRO: What about the costs? Haven’t nuclear reactors become ridiculously expensive? Is Wall Street really going to invest? Why does the government have to help out on these projects?
TUCKER: Government has never subsidized the construction of new reactors. All those reactors built in the 1970s and 1980s were built free and clear by GE, Babcock & Wilcox, and Westinghouse, often at great loss. They thought they were fighting for the future. All the government spending for nuclear has been in research, and that research often had more to do with bombs than nuclear reactors. Critics always point to the Price Anderson Act as a government subsidy, but that only organizes the nation’s insurance companies so that they offer $300 million in coverage for reactors. In addition, each reactor can be assessed $100 million retroactively in case of a nuclear accident. With 104 reactors in operation, total coverage now exceeds $10 billion. The payout for Three Mile Island was only $70 million. The whole Price Anderson Act has never cost the government a dime. Does that sound like a subsidy?
Wind and solar have had a production tax credit since 1979. It is now at 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is about one-third the retail price of electricity. Every time Congress has failed to renew the subsidy, windmill construction has collapsed — which shows you how economically viable it is.
The Bush administration tried to give nuclear a push by attaching the same 1.8 cents per kilowatt-hour subsidy to the first 6,000 megawatts of new nuclear construction. It also provided “regulatory insurance,” which would guarantee loans if proposals became bogged down in endless lawsuits and regulatory delays. This was to reassure investors that we wouldn’t have a repeat of the 1980s, when it took 15 years to complete a reactor. Anti-nuclear groups are confident that Wall Street will never invest, and that no reactors will ever be built. The Nuclear Energy Institute contributes to this view by saying the industry won’t be able to build without more loan guarantees. But I think it’s going to happen, anyway. After all, currently operating reactors are making $1 million a day, sometimes close to $2 million. You’re not going to keep people away from that kind of return. The French and Japanese will probably invest if we don’t. We’re kind of an underdeveloped country right now, as far as nuclear is concerned.
NRO: Do you see a place for solar energy?
TUCKER: I do. I think it could go very far in providing peaking power on hot summer afternoons. This is one of the utilities’ biggest problems. They now meet it with gas turbines, but those are very expensive to fuel and may only operate a few weeks of the year. Solar meshes perfectly with peak demand. But neither wind nor solar is ever going to provide base-load electricity. The choice is either coal or nuclear. Larry Kazmerski, director of photovoltaic research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, agrees with this. When I interviewed him for the book, he said, “We’re big fans of nuclear out here at NREL.” Thomas Friedman interviewed him the same day and he completely missed that. I think a lot of people probably find it hard to believe.
NRO: One of the premises of your book is that global warming is really a problem and we need nuclear to deal with it. Isn’t the evidence getting a little thin on that?
TUCKER: It is. I can’t argue that. The hardest chapter of my book to write was the one on global warming, because the evidence is so tenuous. I’ve actually gotten more flak so far from people who don’t believe in global warming than those who don’t want nuclear power. I don’t believe the dangers of global warming are one-tenth what Al Gore does, but I do think there’s some reason for concern. We can’t go on throwing 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year without having some impact, somewhere.
As Charles Krauthammer recently suggested, there are a lot of reasons why a flat tax on carbon with the proceeds refunded directly to taxpayers wouldn’t be a bad thing. It would help reduce our oil consumption, it would ease us away from coal – which, by the way, kills about 24,000 people a year by causing lung diseases. These are the “externalities” that Milton Friedman said we should incorporate in the price if we wanted to solve environmental problems with a free market. I don’t have any problem with a reasonable carbon tax. Best of all, it would reward nuclear power, and solar and wind, for their lack of carbon emissions. Wind and solar would still be expensive but, when you factor in carbon emissions, nuclear becomes the cheapest way of producing electricity.
NRO: What about nuclear waste? Isn’t that a significant problem for a revival of nuclear?
TUCKER: As I say in my book, “There is no such thing as nuclear waste.” I wrote this in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in March and, so far, nobody has disputed it. Waste is a concept carried over from the carbon era. Carbon dioxide is indeed a waste, because there are such gargantuan amounts of it and there’s nothing to do with it. It has no use. But there’s nothing useless in a spent fuel rod. Plus, instead of being scattered into the environment, it’s all sitting right there waiting to be reprocessed.
The French went ahead with reprocessing when we abandoned it under Carter. They now get 78 percent of their electricity from nuclear. They now get 30 percent of their fuel from recycling, and all their long-term waste is stored beneath the floor of a single room at Le Hague. That’s the “nuclear waste,” when you tackle it sensibly.
NRO: What about plutonium? Doesn’t that constitute a threat for nuclear proliferation?
TUCKER: I have never been able to understand where we got the idea that abstaining from nuclear power in this country would head off the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The idea that terrorists were going to build bombs by stealing plutonium from American reprocessing plants is like worrying that they’re going to steal gold from Fort Knox. If other countries want to build a bomb, they’ll build their own uranium-enrichment facilities or plutonium-producing reactors. That’s what Iran and North Korea have done. If terrorists want plutonium, they’ll go to Dr. A. Q. Khan in Pakistan — they won’t come here. All we’ve done by abjuring nuclear recycling is to give the lead to other countries. Russia is now building a reactor for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Do you think they might look the other way if he purloins a little plutonium to build a bomb, to protect himself from the Great Gringo of the North? Is there a possibility here of another Cuban Missile Crisis? Could we have avoided this if we took the international lead in providing other countries with nuclear reactors, instead of sitting on our hands with our eyes closed, hoping it would all go away? You tell me.
NRO: Are you saying we’ve lost our technological lead on nuclear?
TUCKER: We sure have. We’re losing lots of business as well. The French are selling reactors to China. The Russians are building in South America. We can’t even build here. The only company in the world that can cast a reactor vessel is Japan Steel Works, and they’re backed up three years. We barely have the labor force to build anything nuclear in this country anymore. The specialty welders have all retired, and there are very few nuclear engineers under age 55. If we’re going to catch up, we’ve got to get started right now.
NRO: Do you have anything optimistic to offer?
TUCKER: How’s this? I think President Obama will buy my book on Amazon. I think he’ll read it in one night and become convinced that nuclear is the only way to go. He’ll tell Carol Browner and John Holdren to can it, instruct the NRC to get a move on those license applications, and, in a few years, we’ll have hundreds of thousands of people building new nuclear plants. In ten years we’ll have cheap energy, a revived industrial economy, a clean environment, and we won’t have to listen to any more jeremiads about global warming. Al Gore will be practicing commercial law in Nashville.