Christine Todd Whitman: Nuclear Energy Should Be Part of National Policy

There's no one solution to dependence on foreign oil, but nuclear power should be part of it.

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Energy policy is on the agenda, with experts and organizations weighing in on which strategy the White House should adopt. Christine Todd Whitman, former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency administrator under George W. Bush, says that nuclear energy should be part of the national energy policy. The Clean and Safe Energy Coalition co-chair and Whitman Strategy Group founder recently spoke to U.S. News about why she says nuclear power is good for the environment as well as the U.S. economy. Excerpts:

What is the impact of nuclear energy for the United States?

Nuclear offers a good opportunity for the United States to continue its move away from dependence on foreign oil. [Nuclear energy] is 20 percent of our overall power mix today and I think it ought to stay there. It's not a question of getting more and more, although that wouldn't be bad because it's the only form of base power that releases no regulated pollutants or greenhouse gases while it's producing power. As we look at what our energy mix should be, it's just that: a mix. There's no one solution, no one thing we should do that's going to solve all of our problems, but [nuclear energy] needs to be a part of it.

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What hurdles does the industry face in the coming years?

The hurdles are the public misconceptions about nuclear energy. Fortunately, after [the disaster at] Fukushima Daiichi, Gallup did a poll that showed still 52 percent of the American people were comfortable with nuclear energy being part of our energy future. The recent experience with [Hurricane] Sandy should give people a lot of comfort. There were some 30 reactors between South Carolina and New Hampshire that were in the path of that storm—23 of them operated just fine, there were six that were already down for planned refueling, and there were three that shut down because of the concern of what might happen. They came right back online once the storm passed, so people should feel really good. The actual factual history of nuclear energy in this country is really very good.

What is the potential economic impact of growth in industry?

It's not the reason I would say 'yes, I'm comfortable with nuclear' or 'no I don't want nuclear,' but it's certainly a legitimate part of the conversation. During construction there are about 1,400 to 1,800 jobs created with peak employment at about 3,000. Once [reactors are] completed, there's anywhere from 400 to 700 new jobs. And it's not just nuclear engineers—there's security, there's electrical. Right now the industry is looking at potentially having to replace 25,000 current workers at nuclear reactors because they're going to be eligible to retire in 2015. So we really need to gin up our teaching if we want to get more people into the pipeline and continue expanding nuclear.

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Can the United States become a global energy leader without nuclear power?

To be a leader in any field, the United States will need safe, affordable, and reliable power. To be a leader in the power sector will require an "all of the above" approach and that, in my mind, includes nuclear power.

What role do energy incentives play in moving the nuclear energy industry forward?

They do [need incentives]. What's important about loan guarantees is that it sends a signal to lenders and banks, that this is an industry that has a future in this country. We got out of the business in 1970 and with interest rates as low as they are, there's not much incentive for a major financial institution to invest in something that could be at all risky because your return is not much now.