Former EPA chief: Nuclear plants passed safety tests
She told a crowd of more than 130 energy suppliers, regulators and customers gathered at the Center of New Hampshire that nuclear power, already a substantial part of the nation's energy portfolio, offers one of the best opportunities for reducing carbon emissions and reliance on imported fossil fuels, while meeting growing demand.
Whitman, who served as EPA administrator from 2001 to 2003, is co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, funded largely by the nuclear industry and dedicated to promoting the benefits of nuclear power. She acknowledged that public concerns about safety and disposal of nuclear waste cannot be ignored.
"As we look toward a future that must continue to include nuclear energy, we can't do it in a vacuum. We have to understand what happened in Japan last year," she said, referring to the damage suffered by the Fukushima nuclear reactor in the wake of a 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered an 18-mile evacuation zone surrounding the plant.
"After that accident, many Americans questioned whether our industry was, in fact, safe," she said. "The good news was that Gallup did a poll in March after the accident that showed 50 percent of the respondents believe that nuclear power should still be a part of our mix going forward."
The performance of the nuclear industry before, during and after Hurricane Sandy should only improve the industry's reputation for safety, she said: "There were some 34 reactors in the path of that storm, but not one had a problem."
According to Whitman, 24 nuclear power plants continued to operate and generate power throughout the storm, seven were down for planned refuelling, and the three closest to the New Jersey shore were shut down as a precautionary measure and fired up as soon as the storm was over.
"That was a good test, and should give people confidence about the kind of analysis and proactive planning that is necessary to keep these reactors safe," she said. "The exceptional operation of nuclear plants during Sandy set the standard."
Nuclear power is on the cusp of a significant revival, she said, calling 2012 "a banner year" for the industry, with new operating licenses issued for reactors in Georgia and South Carolina - the first new reactors licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 30 years. She said four new reactors, being constructed in China by Westinghouse, will account for thousands of jobs in the United States.
New technology has the potential to revolutionize the industry, she said, alluding to small, modular reactors, one-third the size of existing plants, that offer what she called a host of safety, construction and economic benefits.
Beyond safety concerns, Whitman said the industry needs a solution to its waste disposal problem. "That is one of the big questions that comes up any time you talk about nuclear reactors," she told the audience. "What do you do with the spent fuel rods?"
Congress has set its sights on a national repository in Yucca Mountain, Nev., but, she said, "As long as Harry Reid (Nevada senator) is president of the Senate, that isn't going to happen."
While holding out hope that a national repository will be built some day, she said alternatives include reprocessing the rods to reduce their radioactivity, or creating a handful of smaller disposal sites instead of one national location. "There are a lot of legitimate questions being asked," she said, "and there are very good answers for all of them."
Earlier in the day, Gordon van Welie, president and chief executive officer for the nonprofit organization that manages the regional power grid, ISO New England, agreed that nuclear power will be a part of the region's energy future, along with natural gas and wind power, as coal- and oil-fired plants are phased out due to their high cost of operation and environmental impacts.
The impact of low natural gas prices on the New England energy market was a recurring theme at the conference. Tim Bigler, senior market strategist for Hess Corp., told the gathering he had not seen anything like it in his 27 years in the energy business.
Natural gas prices on the wholesale market peaked at $14 per one million British Thermal Units in 2006, and recently hit a low of $1.90, putting the price below coal. "That is an historic event," he said. "I've never seen an event like that."
Vic Del Vecchio, president of Liberty Utilities, described how the trend could contribute to a major expansion in gas pipelines throughout the region by 2016, while Janet Gail Besser of the New England Clean Energy Council said the low natural gas prices present an opportunity to invest in renewable energy.
"The trend is not likely to get lower than it is today," she said. "We will be harmed more than other regions if natural gas prices go up due to heavy reliance. It's time to buy energy insurance, and that's what renewable energy does. We should take advantage of the low natural gas prices as a time to buy that insurance."