As the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant complex continued to unfold, the nuclear gang—principals of the nuclear industry and pro-nuclear members of the U.S. Congress and the Obama administration—held a two-day “summit” in Washington, D.C. last week on pushing for new nuclear plant construction.
The conclusion about the impacts of Fukushima on their drive for a “renaissance” of nuclear power: it will be only a “speed bump,” as participants put it at the Special Summit on New Nuclear Energy.
“The momentum of the renaissance has hit a speed bump,” Ganpat Mani, president and CEO of ConverDyn which produces uranium hexafluoride which is used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants. ConverDyn is a partnership between Honeywell and General Atomics.
Llewelyn King, who hosts “White House Chronicle” on PBS television, and was the summit’s moderator, asked a panel titled “Lessons from Fukushima” whether its four members considered “Fukushima a speed bump, Armageddon or something in between” for the nuclear industry.
The consensus was that it is a speed bump. William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy stressed that nuclear power is needed to provide carbon-free energy to counter global warming, and thus despite the Fukushima situation will do well.
A featured speaker at the event held June 21 and 22 was William D. Magwood IV, a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Although the commission is supposed to regulate the industry without a pro-nuclear bias, Magwood is a staunch advocate of nuclear power. Indeed, at a similar but pre-Fukushima nuclear summit at Idaho National Laboratory in December, Magwood, then head of the Office of Nuclear Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy, bemoaned that “we in the United States have not seen… a new successful nuclear power plant project, since 1973 and our research, industrial and educational bases have eroded dramatically in the last decade.”
He praised the “new general nuclear technology”—much of which is being developed at the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory—at that December 7 meeting called the New Millennium Nuclear Energy Summit.
At last week’s Washington affair, Magwood spoke of the reaction at the NRC as “we watched” the television images of Fukishima coming out of Japan. It was hoped that “this would only be an incident” and it would be gotten “under control,” he said.
“We knew the Japanese were prepared for earthquakes,” he said.
But as it became clear that this was going to be “more” in terms of the gravity of the situation: “At the NRC it was like a friend had died,” said Magwood.
The Special Summit on New Nuclear Energy was organized by the U.S. Nuclear Infrastructure Council. Council members include General Electric, the manufacturer of the Fukushima nuclear power plants and, since 2006, in partnership in its nuclear plant business with the Japanese corporation Hitachi.
Other members of the council include the nuclear industry trade group Nuclear Energy Institute; Babcock & Wilcox, manufacturer of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant that underwent a partial meltdown in 1979; Duke Energy, a U.S. utility long a booster of nuclear power; the Tennessee Valley Authority, a U.S. government-created public power company heavily committed to nuclear power; Uranium Producers of America; and AREVA, the French government-financed nuclear power company that has been moving to expand into the U.S. and worldwide.
A running point at the summit was the need to “educate the public” about the benefits of nuclear power despite Fukushima.
There was also much complaining about a series of Associated Press articles on nuclear power by investigative reporter Jeff Dunn that started running a day before the summit began. On June 20, the AP series of expose’s launched with an article about how “federal regulators have been working closely with the nuclear power industry to keep the nation’s aging reactors operating within safety standards by repeatedly weakening those standards, or simply failing to enforce them.” On June 21, the article was on how “the number and severity of the leaks” of radioactive tritium from U.S. nuclear plants “has been escalating, even as federal regulators extend the licenses of more and more reactors across the nation.”
Other speakers at the summit included: John Kelly, an Obama administration Department of Energy deputy assistant for nuclear reactor technologies; Matthew Milazzo representing an entity called the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future set up by the Obama administration; and Congressman Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, chairman of the House Energy & Power Subcommittee, a leading nuclear power backer in Congress.
In addition to “Lessons from Fukushima,” there were panels on “China, India & Emerging Global Nuclear Markets,” “Advancing Nuclear Technology” and “State of the Renaissance.”
The gathering was held at the National Guard Association Hall of States.
Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power and the host of the nationally-aired TV program Enviro Close-Up (www.envirovideo.com).