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Outlook: Nuclear Energy

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Patrick Moore
Founder, Greenspirit Strategies Ltd./Co-founder, Greenpeace
Monday, April 17, 2006; 11:00 AM

In the 1970s, Patrick Moore , a founder of the environmental group Greenpeace, believed that nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust, as did most of his compatriots. Thirty years on, his views have changed: He now believes that nuclear energy may just be the only energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change.

Just five days after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that his country had enriched uranium, the former Greenpeace leader made the case for nuclear energy in Outlook. Patrick Moore was online Monday, April 17, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his Sunday Outlook article, Going Nuclear , ( Post, April 16, 2006 ).

The transcript follows.

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Burke, Va.: Mr. Moore--

Thank you for a thoughtful opinion piece.

Do you have a suggestion for the proper mix of renewables and nuclear power sources. And are there modeling and simulation tools that might help in calculating and quantifying such a mix of sources?

Patrick Moore: I don't think there is much justification for solar voltaics on the grid. Wind may be able to produce 10% cost-effectively. Geothermal heat pumps are cost-effective in every building and should be widely deployed. Hydro-electric already produces a substantial % of electricity but it is mostly built out. So the majority of power must be produced by coal, gas or nuclear. I would emphasize nuclear and try to reduce reliance of coal and gas.

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Rockville, Md.: Dr. Moore, I'd guess that your support for nuclear power receives some funding from industry groups or their representatives, as your positive views on logging are underwritten in part by commercial forestry interests. There's nothing wrong with being employed by those whose point of view you share, of course, but in the interest of full disclosure, can you tell us what nuclear trade or media groups contribute to your income or the income of your company, Greenspirit?

Patrick Moore: We work for the Nuclear Energy Institute in DC and the Canadian Nuclear Association in Ottawa.

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Newburyport, Mass.: Separate from nuclear technology's safety and waste storage issues, isn't it true that the more dangerous the type of fuel used to power an electricity generating plant, the more appealing a target that facility is to terrorists? And consequently government and plant owners will need to have more security around these plants, which can lead to violations of civil liberties of nuclear opponents. Authorities will need to monitor more closely antinuclear opponents because of the terrorist threat, or say they have to monitor opposition because of the threat. Because of the security issues, shouldn't we be moving away from large, centralized generating facilities that are such obvious terrorist targets?

Patrick Moore: Nuclear plants are not a particularly good target for terrorists. They are very secure and the containment structure is very strong. Liquid natural gas plants would cause much more damage if attacked and exploded. Also political targets such as the Capitol Building are much more likely targets.

I believe the authorities are capable of discerning between terrorists and anti-nuclear groups.

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Crossville, Tenn.: Hi Patrick,

I have long believed that nuclear energy is the way to go for electric power generation. We certainly have an abundant source of fuel and U.S. reactors are among the safest in the world. Having said that, we also need an equally safe method of disposing of the spent fuel rods. Right now the jury is still out on the Nevada site for long term storage. While it might be the best place for the highly radioactive military waste wouldn't you agree that we need additional safe storage areas for power generation waste?

So if we start now to produce more nuclear power reactors how do we accommodate current and future waste products? Thanks.

Patrick Moore: Used fuel can be safely stored at the reactor site for several decades, as is the case around the world today. The best approach is to first recycle the plutonium and uranium for new fuel and then only the fission products, which have less volume and are much shorter-lived, can be stored at Yucca Mountain.

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Reston, Va.: Is Greenpeace willing to actively work for the start of nuclear reactor construction in the United States? What type of reactor design does Greenpeace favor?

Patrick Moore: I left Greenpeace 20 years ago, note it describes me as a "former leader" at the bottom of the article. Greenpeace is religiously opposed to nuclear energy. I think they need to rethink their position.

There are a lot of promising advances in nuclear technology. The pebble bed reactor being developed in South Africa and China is a case in point.

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Port Orchard, Wash.: The U.S. Navy has been buying and using nuclear reactors every year for nearly 50 years. With a proven water cooled design such as theirs, couldn't coastal cities re-use them instead of the Navy cutting them out of submarines and burying them in Eastern Washington State? The submarine hulls are stressed and worn out, not the reactors.

Patrick Moore: I wasn't aware of that situation. I will find out more about it.

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Lansdale, Pa.: How can one justify a country's quest for nuclear energy when they are known for their terrorist ties, when most people know and accept the fact that they are not just using it for civilian purposes?

Patrick Moore: Of course that is why the world community is taking Iran's situation very seriously. As I mentioned in my article it is necessary to use diplomacy first but if that does not work then force may be required.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: Prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution the Shah (Reza Shah) was a proponent of nuclear power, have those plants been operating all this time? If they have, why now is the government complaining? Another question, if Iran is incapable of enriching U235, why would Iran claim to have done so?

Patrick Moore: I don't believe Iran has any nuclear plants.

Iran is capable of enriching uranium with centrifuge technology. What is often overlooked in this discussion is that you don't need nuclear power plants to make a nuclear weapon. With centrifuge technology it is relatively easy to enrich uranium and make a bomb. The power plant may be used as "cover" but it isn't working very well in the case of Iran.

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Occidental, Calif.: Is there any hope of future work on the IFR/ALMR, or is all of Argonne and Chuck Till's work wasted?

Patrick Moore: I am certain that fast reactors will be built again in the future, as a way to recycle the plutonium and uranium from used fuel.

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San Diego, Calif.: Thanks for taking my question. You mention in your piece that nuclear power is one of the least expensive ways of generating electricity. I'm sure this is true for a plant that is up and running, but what about the large capital cost in building nuclear plants and the relatively high cost of decommissioning old plants? In the past these costs have been subsidized in part by the government. Will the time come when nuclear power will become truly cost-effective and subsidy-free? If so, when?

Patrick Moore: Government is involved in most energy sources, for example solar and wind are subsidized. The Energy Act provides for incentives for new reactors but that will phase out once the industry is kick started. The industry pays a percentage of their income to a fund for waste disposal. I am not certain of the decommissioning expenses but I would imagine the utility is responsible.

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Stockholm, Sweden: Hi. Do you think that the United States will attack Iran if it turns out that they have enriched uranium? Thank you.

Patrick Moore: I have no idea but if it becomes clear that Iran is building a nuclear weapon and is not co-operating with the IAEA then force would no doubt become an option.

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Berkeley, Calif.: It seems that nuclear energy is (finally) gaining traction in the national debate. If oilmen like Bush and Cheney can find common ground with the founder of Greenpeace, maybe we can get it done. That's encouraging.

My only fear is that all politics is local. Is a growing>consensus among national leaders going to overcome NIMBY syndrome?

Patrick Moore: As I pointed out the closer people live to a nuclear plant the stronger they support nuclear energy. They have seen safe operation for decades and they now the reactors bring wealth to their community.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: I agree with you that we should be looking more toward nuclear as an energy source. But do you propose the United States should develop new nuclear facilities without a viable plan for the storage of its nuclear waste?

Yucca Mt., Hanford, all of these sites seem to be plagued by budget overruns and logistical problems. Shouldn't we fix the storage problem before we begin generating new wastes?

Patrick Moore: It is important that the Yucca Mountain site move forward. Much of the opposition is political rather than technical. Hanford is a military site and in the haste to make nuclear weapons a lot of waste was badly stored. The civilian nuclear industry has no such legacy as the waste is securely and safely stored at the reactor sites until it is either stored at the future Yucca Mountain facility or recycled.

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Berkeley, Calif.: Why haven't there been any nuclear power plants built in the last 30 years? There is no law against them; even the loud and popular protests against one of the last plants built, Diablo Canyon (in California) in the 70s, didn't stop it. Isn't a matter of economics?

Also, will the same proportion of government subsidies be required over the next 50 years as existed over the 50 years between 1948 and 1998 when, according to the National Resources Defense Council, nuclear power subsidies were an estimated 60 percent of the total federal energy research and development funding, while 23 percent went to oil, coal, and natural gas, 11 percent to renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro, geothermal, and solar power, and only seven percent to energy efficiency technologies. And this doesn't include the 'subsidy' that the nuclear power industry receives through the Price-Anderson Act which limits the liability from catastrophic accidents.

Patrick Moore: Economics has played a role, coal has been cheaper in the past. So if you want cheap we get air pollution and greenhouse gases.

I don't know the NRDC report. Do they include military nuclear costs?

Nuclear technology is very R&D intensive, a legitimate role for government/industry co-operation.

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Woodland, Calif.: Dear Mr. Moore,

It is my understanding that nuclear power has significant downsides compared to many other types of energy production.

Cost is certainly one issue, especially for developing countries that generate a fair amount of GHG. Iran may be able to use some nuclear power after roughly 30 years of cost and construction. How reasonable would this approach be for most countries if they were supposed to use NP as a primary source of energy? Nuclear waste is another major issue. Plans to reuse used fuel are not new. Also, nuclear energy cannot generate power in same quantities worldwide as can plants using coal. Even in the U.S. to do what you suggest, would amount to manufacturing hundreds more plants at significant cost to the environment.

Also, world supplies of uranium are just as short-lived as coal and oil supplies if not more. Practically, our worldwide uranium supplies will expire even at current rates at or before we experience a serious shortage in coal and oil supplies.

Looking at all that, I wonder why of all people would someone like you ignore all relevant facts and embrace a technology that has never factually lived up to expectation.

Thank you!

Patrick Moore: Nuclear plants have been built recently in China. India, South Korea, Romania, and now in Finland.

There is enough uranium for hundreds of years and then there is thorium which is even more abundant.

Nuclear energy reserves are comparable to coal.

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Glenbrook, Conn.: Instead of fossil fuels and nuclear plants in congested areas. how about Nuclear plants in the middle of nowhere making hydrogen for our homes and cars? Cars burning Hydrogen release no global warming gases and keeps our energy dollars at home.

Can Hydrogen be used to heat and cook like natural gas and propane?

Thomas PM Barnett has some interesting things to say about alcohol, he thinks Africa can make a lot of ethanol from sugar cane.

Patrick Moore: Nuclear energy is the best way to make hydrogen as water can be split thermally using heat,much more efficient that electrolysis.

Yes, hydrogen could be used for heating and cooking.

Biofuels will be an important part of the energy mix in the future.

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Vienna, Va.: Nuclear power plant efficiency is about 45%. Which means more than half is going to waste and adding to global warming. So why is this environment friendly. Please explain. Thanks.

Patrick Moore: An efficiency of 45% is actually quite good for industrial processes. The heat that is lost does not cause greenhouse gas emissions.

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Washington, D.C.: Your Outlook piece was quite enlightening, but I'm really hoping you can clarify something for me.

Nuclear power is dependent upon uranium, which is an element that must be mined. I am left wondering: How is this any more practical than coal mining? Where is uranium found -- and which particular countries are rich in the resource? And, as with coal or oil, won't there eventually be a uranium scarcity problem?

Patrick Moore: Uranium reserves are abundant. About 40% of uranium is mined in Australia, 40% in Canada, and the balance in a number of countries, including the US.

There is no scarcity of coal but unfortunately it is relatively dirty and is the worst of the fossil fuels in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear energy releases very little greenhouse gas, especially if you power the fuel manufacture with nuclear energy.

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Washington, D.C.: According to your article, "The only practical approach to the issue of nuclear weapons proliferation is to put it higher on the international agenda and to use diplomacy and, where necessary, force to prevent countries or terrorists from using nuclear materials for destructive ends."

Do you suggest that the U.S. use force against countries such as Iran and North Korea, whose leaders have repeatedly denied cooperating in any diplomatic measures? What do you mean by "where necessary"? If we were to put nuke proliferation higher in priority on the international diplomacy agenda, what circumstances do you believe should warrant the use of force?

Patrick Moore: Force would be warranted where a country that has stated its intention to destroy another country is clearly developing nuclear weapons capability. (This was not the case with Iraq, for example)

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Orno, Maine: Am I correct in thinking that the last major hurdle - other than politics - to the widespread use of nuclear energy is the issue of what to do with the waste that is produced? If so, can you give us a bit of perspective on how that issue is being addressed - and how close we are to a reliable, safe, and efficient way to transport and store nuclear waste?

Patrick Moore: The storage, handling, and transport of nuclear waste is not technically difficult. It is being done around the world on a daily basis. The problem is political opposition, when people lay down on the railway tracks to prevent transport, for example. And when people use politics to prevent Yucca Mountain from being developed for long-term storage of waste.

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Fairfax, Va.: As you work your way through an analysis of nuclear energy, it is possible to construct a fairly long list of positives. These positives always look even stronger when oil moves the way it has in recently and you view where crude oil comes from. There always seems to be one "kicker" in the whole process, which is what is to be done with nuclear waste? Nuclear waste is described as having an astronomically high "half life". In your estimation, how do we deal with this problem?

Patrick Moore: A lot of you are asking about nuclear waste so I will use this reply to answer that question in more detail. I have over 60 questions so will not get to them all.

When nuclear fuel, which is 100% uranium ( a mix of uranium 238 and uranium 235)has completed the first cycle it is removed from the reactor and is called "used fuel" or "spent fuel". The reactor is then refueled with fresh uranium. The used fuel is stored fore about 10 years in pools of water to cool it at the radioactivity decays. Then the used fuel can be removed from the water and stored in "dry casks" on the surface until it is either recycled or sent to long-term storage (Yucca Mountain when it is complete). The used fuel contains uranium, plutonium, and other heavy elements as well as the fission products from the splitting of uranium 235. When used fuel is recycled the plutonium, uranium and other heavy elements are separated from the fission products. The plutonium, uranium and other heavy elements can then be re-used as fuel. The fission products are the waste. The fission products have far shorter half-lives than the plutonium and uranium so they do not have to be stored so long (hundreds of years vs. tens of thousands) before they are safe.

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Washington, D.C.: I think you ducked the question on the costs of nuclear energy. What is the life-cycle cost of a nuclear power plant, including any subsidies provided by the government and the cost of handling waste? That reflects the cost of nuclear power to society. Your statement that the government covers some of the costs (such as the Price Anderson Act and decommissioning of plants) seems to imply that we shouldn't worry about those costs. We should.

Thanks

Patrick Moore: Of course we should worry about the costs. But it is a fact that nuclear energy is cost-competitive with coal and hydro and is less expensive than natural gas.

To learn more about the Price-Anderson act go to http://www.nei.org/

The industry does pay for its insurance.

I didn't say the government covers decommissioning, just that I did not know the precise answer.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Enjoyed your article, and found this quote interesting:"No one has died of a radiation-related accident in the history of the U.S. civilian nuclear reactor program."

It seems to me that the average American (& global citizen?) is also concerned about cancer risks associated with nuclear programs. I was curious if you could comment on cancer risks associated with nuclear programs, waste, etc.

Patrick Moore: Many studies have been done and there is no evidence of increased cancer around nuclear plants. In fact people who live close to nuclear plants are generally healthier than the average population. There is a saying that the closer you get to a nuclear plant the better the schools and roads are.

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Washington, D.C.: You say you work for the Nuclear Energy Institute in D.C. and the Canadian Nuclear Association in Ottawa. Did they change your opinion with regard to nuclear energy or did that happen earlier? If so when?

Patrick Moore: I changed my opinion on nuclear energy long before I began to advise and consult to the industry. I, and my organization Greenspirit Strategies, get paid to say what we believe, not to repeat someone else's words. We are about sustainability and we believe that nuclear energy has a role to play in a sustainable energy future.

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Washington, D.C.: Kudos on a well thought out op ed piece. Thank you for speaking out as an environmentalist in for the benefits of nuclear power. My question: Have you looked at fast neutron reactors? My understanding is that they should produce only about 10% of the waste of conventional thermal reactors, without creating weapons grade material as a byproduct, and the resulting waste has a half-life of several hundred years, rather than 10's of thousands of years.

Patrick Moore: Yes, fast neutron reactors are an important part of future nuclear technology.

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Alexandria, Va.: As a recent convert in favor of replacing fossil fuel use with nuclear energy, I want to thank you for taking this stand.

My questions are, first, how difficult will it be to make this the consensus of a majority of environmentalists? Second, given how thoroughly nuclear energy has been demonized during the last three decades, how difficult will it be to bring the public around?

Patrick Moore: A majority of the US public, about 70%, are in favor of nuclear energy. The problem is the extreme anti-nuclear position taken by high-profile groups like Greenpeace. Many politicians are nervous about supporting nuclear energy. I believe that nuclear energy will resurge in the US as it is in many other countries already.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us.

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