National Press Club

Too soon to predict nuclear power’s future, Newsmakers panelist says

April 14, 2011 | By Heather Forsgren Weaver | HeatherForsgrenWeaver@gmail.com

It is too soon to know what impact the Japanese crisis will have on the future of nuclear power, former Rep. Phil Sharp, D-Ind., told a National Press Club Newsmakers audience April 14.

“I would be very reluctant to think that some action in Congress is going to make it or break it, some action in Japan is going to make it or break it,” said Sharp, who participated in a forum.

“I think we are a bit premature to either write this off or to believe it is going to move forward,” said Sharp, who is now president of Resources for the Future, a policy think tank.

Nuclear power supplies about 20 percent of the U.S. electricity needs. Many believe that natural gas is easier to use and less expensive -- further dimming the future use of nuclear, Sharp said.

The prospects for nuclear power weren’t good before the Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster and “they are worse now,” said Kevin Book, managing director of ClearView Energy Partners, a financial research firm.

Nuclear power is “unnecessary, dangerous and expensive,” said Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace USA. “Nuclear power has been basically a welfare program for men in white lab coats.”

Nuclear power faces three issues: waste, health and safety, and financial,” said Frank Maisano, director of strategic communications at Bracewell and Giuliani LLP.

Sharp discounted the safety concerns, noting the United States has “built up an array of practices” to deal with the safety of nuclear power because Americans are particularly afraid of radiation because it can’t be seen, felt or smelled.

The Fukushima plant is designed with spent-fuel pools that are three stories above ground. About 20 of the 104 U.S. plants have this design.

Greenpeace has been urging the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to require those plants to move that waste to expensive dry cask storage since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, so that an airplane can’t fly into the buildings containing the pools and cause a radioactive accident, Riccio said.

The financial future of nuclear power is contingent on on-going support from the federal government in the form of loan guarantees and tax credits since Wall Street seems unwilling to invest without government backing.

Riccio questioned why the government would continue to back nuclear power when Wall Street and investment guru Warren Buffett have abandoned it.

“If it is a bad investment for Wall Street and it is a bad investment for Warren Buffet, it is a bad investment for the American taxpayer as well,” he said.

The Newsmakers Committee is planning a series of events on the nuclear power industry in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima plant, said Maisano, a member of the Newsmakers Committee and moderator for the event.