Today a White House task force led by Vice President Dick Cheney unveils the Bush administration's new national energy policy. The plan is expected to call for more energy conservation, while increasing the nation's commitment to oil and gas production and stepping up the creation of new power plants. Earlier this week, Cheney announced that some of those plants should be nuclear. Currently 20% of the nation's energy comes from nuclear sources. But a recent poll shows that Americans -- even in California -- are still strongly opposed to nuclear energy. 90.3's Karen Schaefer gives us this look at Ohio's nuclear power industry.
Karen Schaefer- Ohio has two nuclear power plants, both owned and operated by FirstEnergy Corporation. The Perry plant east of Cleveland has been on-line for ten years. Here at Davis-Besse near Toledo, workers have been generating electricity since 1977. FirstEnergy officials say nuclear energy is clean energy.
But a nuclear plant is fundamentally different from one that makes electricity by burning coal or natural gas. While half the plant is devoted to the usual turbine generators, the other half houses a nuclear reactor where workers harness the power of nuclear fission.
Dominating the skyline is a nearly 500-foot high concrete cooling tower. But the heart of the plant lies in the containment chamber. Here two closed systems circulate water around the nuclear assembly rods. Radioactive decay heats the water, creating steam to drive the turbines. The water also serves to cool the fuel rods and keep the reaction in check. Every two years, new fuel rods are added to the core and spent fuel is removed. But the uranium-filled steel rods are radioactive when they go in and even more so when they come out. At Davis-Besse -- as at every nuclear plant in the U.S. -- spent fuel is stored on-site in huge, underground pools. Howard Bergendahl is the Davis-Besse plant manager.
Howard Bergendahl- This is the spent fuel pool. And you're standing right next to all of the spent fuel, all the high-level waste that's been created. But there's still heat and there's still radiation, so you need to shield the radiation. And it naturally decays away. But in the meantime it needs to be shielded or contained.
KS- For how long?
HB- The radiation level drops off depending on what the by-products are, but some of them are very long-lived, that would last a hundred-plus years.
KS- In fact, scientists believe spent nuclear fuel may remain radioactive for hundreds, even thousands of years. Davis-Besse has over 20 years of spent fuel stored both above and below ground. Workers are creating more storage space until a national high-level radioactive waste dump such as the proposed Yucca Mountain site in Nevada can be approved and built. And that's where anti-nuclear activists like draw the line. Last year, Chris Trepal of Earth Day Coalition attended the U.S. Department of Energy's Nuclear Waste Transportation Hearings in Cleveland.
Chris Trepal- Ohio is really the center of it all, almost the entire Eastern Seaboard and states funnel right through Ohio, because of the train lines and also, because of our pretty good highway system. Mayor White is very concerned about this type of very dangerous, hazardous waste coming through the inner-city neighborhoods.
KS- Transportation and storage of nuclear waste -- and its long-term environmental consequences -- are just some of the issues that concern opponents of nuclear energy. While FirstEnergy maintains a complex level of safety procedures under the watchful eye of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, there have been problems. Catalogued on the NRC website are dozens of unscheduled shutdowns at Perry. In 1986 the plant was damaged by an earthquake. That same year, Davis-Besse -- modeled on the Three-Mile Island reactor -- was hit by a tornedo. Each shutdown costs the company hundreds of millions of dollars. Nonetheless FirstEnergy spokesman Richard Wilkins says nuclear energy is finally becoming competitive.
Richard Wilkins- Just look at the operating costs for any of the major sources of electric generation, nuclear power's the cheapest of those.
KS- But Chris Trepal says the huge cost of building the plants -- one billion dollars for Davis-Besse -- is still being carried on the backs of ratepayers.
CT- Northeast Ohio folks are paying an $8 billion bill for Perry Nuclear Power Plant. That affects our businesses, our economic development, our schools, our churches, our entire economy.
KS- Some environmentalists claim that California's current energy crisis was started by the high cost of bail-outs for nuclear energy. Harvey Wasserman is Senior Advisor for Greenpeace and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service in Washington.
Harvey Wasserman- We're pretty sure that the public will not stand for building new nuclear plants. We're really playing a game of Chernobyl roulette here. All of industrial Europe is going away from atomic power and towards wind and one of the main reasons they're doing that is because they're not being run by people from the oil, gas and nuclear industries.
KS- But since 1953, only a handful of U.S. nuclear facilities have been de-commissioned. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that the cost of de-commissioning a plant could be nearly as much as building one. Recently two U.S. nuclear plants received 20-year extensions. FirstEnergy officials say they'll consider that option as Davis-Besse nears the end of its 40-year lifespan. In the meantime, Davis-Besse continues to attract more than two-thousand visitors a year, many of them school children and bird watchers, who come to observe spring and fall migrations in the surrounding Navarre Marsh. At Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant near Toledo, I'm Karen Schaefer, 90.3, 90.3 WCPN.