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Nuclear Power: Path to Energy Independence or Deadly Danger?

Aired November 7, 2013 - 18:28   ET



ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, is nuclear power the path to in independence, or a deadly danger?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can't get much closer to the hearts of the Fukushima disaster than this. There are 1,500 spent fuel rods.

ANNOUNCER: Are we more frightened of nuclear power than we ought to be? On the left, Brian Schweitzer. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Ralph Nader, a consumer advocate who opposes nuclear power; and Michael Shellenberger, a nuclear energy supporter featured in the CNN film "Pandora's Promise." Unlimited clean energy or toxic trouble? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


BRIAN SCHWEITZER, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Brian Schweitzer on the left.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: I'm Newt Gingrich on the right.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Ralph Nader, who opposes nuclear power; and Michael Shellenberger, who supports it.

After a third of a century of hysteria, brought on by people who didn't know anything, we're finally having an honest debate on nuclear power, one of the energy sources that can sustain civilization. Tonight CNN's presenting a provocative new film called "Pandora's Promise." It argues that, despite recent disasters, like the one at Japan's Fukushima power plant, most of the fears expressed by anti- nuclear protesters are irrational. Here's a quick preview.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I came to realize they basically avoided looking at the whole picture. And only looked at the questions that seemed to prove to them that nuclear power was dangerous, as I had, too.

The only reason I changed my mind is that I talked to experts, physicists in particular, who were the pioneers of nuclear energy. And who carefully, one by one, explained to me again and again, until it finally got through my head why it wasn't what the anti-nuclear activists felt it was.


GINGRICH: Ralph, let me ask you for a second. The whole process of dealing with nuclear energy, it seems to me, you have been always a consumer advocate. I mean, as long as I can remember you, you have been a consumer advocate.

Now you are in a situation where what this debate is about, if we go purely to renewables, we're seeing already in Europe, a 17 percent increase in the cost of energy for the consumer in the last few years, 21 percent increase for manufacturing and businesses. Isn't it a fact that, from a consumer standpoint, almost inevitably those kind of strategies lead to dramatically higher costs?

RALPH NADER, CONSUMER ADVOCATE: Not at all. Because the alternative to nuclear power, which is uneconomic and can't be privately financed, has to be 100 percent -- almost 100 percent government loan guarantees. Corporate socialism to you, Newt.

The alternative is energy efficiency. That's the first platform for energy policy all over the world. We waste enormous amounts of energy. A megawatt of energy we don't waste is a megawatt of energy you don't have to produce. And that's the fastest, quickest, cheapest, most job-intensive way. Retrofitting buildings, homes, more efficient motors, more efficient motor vehicles, lighting, air conditioning systems. That's even before we get into biomass, wind power, solar thermal, photovoltaic and all the others that are going to eventually be the dominant form of energy in the world. Wind power.

GINGRICH: We have an amazing multiple of subsidy for solar power today, and the projections are for the next 10 years, we're going to continue an amazing subsidy for solar power. It's always -- the energy of the future.

SCHWEITZER: We've been subsidizing nuclear energy for the last 50 years, so I don't think there's anybody pure in this.

But Michael, let me ask you, you coming from the environmental community and now being a supporter of nuclear energy, you telling us that's the way to go, aren't you concerned about radiation in our water and our air, and our wildlife and our people? And if you can support nuclear energy, why not -- why not clean coal like we have in Montana? Why not -- why not wind power with abundant natural gas or stored pumped energy with our lake systems? Why just nuclear energy?

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER, SUPPORTER OF NUCLEAR POWER: Well, before I start, I just want to acknowledge that I really respect Ralph Nader and have always admired him, especially his work in the 1960s for workplace safety, food safety, car safety, but the fact is he's been saying this same thing about solar and wind and efficiency since the early '70s. I went and looked it up on "The New York Times" this morning.

Last year solar provided less than one tenth of 1 percent of our electricity. The economy has become a lot more efficient over the last 40 years. We have more efficiency buildings. We have more efficient cars, and we use more energy. In fact, efficiency enables greater amounts of energy consumption.

So I've always been an advocate of solar and wind. I actually lobbied for the subsidies for solar and wind, but when you look at what's happening in the world, this is not the early '70s anymore. Back then no one was very worried about global warming. The world is going to triple or quadruple the amount of energy it consumes over the next century. And if we want to do something serious about the climate, our -- our emissions need to go to zero from the energy sector.

But even if you don't care about global warming or you don't think it's much of a problem, consider this. Earlier this year former NASA climate scientist James Hansen did a study. He found that nuclear energy over the last 40 years that it's been used worldwide has saved 1.8 million lives by producing zero air pollution energy. And he says that if we expand it, we'll save another 7 million lives. Those numbers have to be convincing for people that care about climate change.

JONES: There's still radiation.

NADER: Tell that -- tell that to the Fukushima area, the Chernobyl area. Tell it to the areas where hundreds of square miles are now uninhabitable.

And the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s, Michael, said that a Class 9 accident in the U.S. would contaminate an area, quote, "the size of Pennsylvania." You don't want to have an energy source as one bite of the apple. You have a disaster, whether it's due to sabotage, earthquake, horrendous hurricane, or human error or design defect, any of those, if you have major disaster, it will affect all other nuclear plants. You know that.

SHELLENBERGER: This fear-mongering that you've been doing for 40 years has been effective in halting the growth of nuclear energy. You stopped it. You and the environmental movement have stopped it. Twenty percent of our electricity. That 20 percent saved 1.7 million lives. Millions of other lives would have been saved, had we had zero-pollution energy.

Instead this kind of fear-mongering -- I mean, look at the record. Forty years, we've had three bad accidents. Chernobyl, the World Health Organization says 70 people have died. Outside of the Soviet Union, in Fukushima and Three Mile Island, nobody has died.

By contrast, coal kills over 300,000 people per year. So you can -- you can kind of paint these grand scare theories...

NADER: Wait a minute.

SHELLENBERGER: But the reality, there's an empirical public health...

NADER: You're not listening. Start with energy efficiency. Put aside anything else. We are very wasteful in energy, correct?


NADER: Correct?

SHELLENBERGER: Can I give you the answer to the question?

NADER: Yes, go ahead.

SHELLENBERGER: We've become more energy efficient over the last 200 years, Ralph. If you look at the energy studies over 200 years, energy intensity has declined, meaning we get more units of GDP per unit of energy, the last 200 years. That's a long-term trend. And over that same period of time, our energy consumption increases.

Now what are you going to do? Tell the 1.3 billion people in the world who burn wood and dung for their energy that they need to become more energy efficient? They need electricity, Ralph. They need baseload grid electricity. And it's going to come -- it's either going to come from fossil fuels or it's going to come from nuclear.

NADER: Do you realize what the national security aspects of nuclear power is?


NADER: Do you have any idea how tempting a target the fuel rods, spent fuel rods are around all these nuclear plants?

SCHWEITZER: So Ralph, that brings...

NADER: Why do you think Israel has never built a nuclear plant? Why? Why do you think...

SHELLENBERGER: There was an attack, actually, on a nuclear power attack with a bazooka. It was by Greens in Germany.

SCHWEITZER: Let me ask Ralph this question. So now we've had a 40-year history of these nukes, and we have some 100 of these facilities across America. And there was some kind of a grand plan that we were -- a big hole in Yucca Mountain, and we were going to deliver all this radiation on railroads through the biggest cities in America and deliver it to this big hole, but nobody wants this coming through their towns, so it's all stored in their backyards.

NADER: Yes. Yes. That's right.

SCHWEITZER: How do we get rid of all of it? What's your plan? How can we solve what -- the problem we already have? What are we going to do with all this radiation?

NADER: First of all, even if we find a depository underground that's good for a quarter of a million years, you're going to have trucks and railroad cars loaded with this radioactive waste coursing through towns, villages, farm country, cities going to this repository. The existing 99 nuclear plants -- you've had about six now closed town in the last year -- utility executives themselves think it's totally uneconomical. Two of them in Texas, shut down. Natural gas is killing nuclear power.

But if you -- if you look at the existing ones, they're aging, many of them are near nuclear earthquake faults like Indian Point. Thirty-five miles north of New York City, imagine, evacuating New York City...

SHELLENBERGER: This is just hysterical...

NADER: There's not one example of an evacuation plan...

SCHWEITZER: But it's not -- it's still -- let's just all agree that there's no plan. The plan is the future generation of some kind of a nuke that will use it.

SHELLENBERGER: Governor, actually, that's not true, and let me -- let me start by just addressing one point. Thirty-three countries in the world...

SCHWEITZER: Hang on. Hang on. We're going to go to break. And so when they built Fukushima and Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, they told us there was almost no chance of a meltdown. Michael, you say the nukes are safe, but when we come back, I'll ask you, what makes you so sure?


SCHWEITZER: Welcome back. In the CROSSFIRE tonight is Ralph Nader and Michael Shellenberger.

Tonight, CNN's presenting the film, "Pandora's Box." You'll hear longtime opponents of nuclear power explain why they've changed their minds. And some say it's less dangerous than they feared. Others say the only answer to our growing need for energy. Here's another clip from the film.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most people kind of think that somehow we're going to be reducing our energy consumption. Actually, we just find more and more ways for it. If you look at all the energy that is used by an iPhone, not just to make it and to power it, but also to power all the servers, all of the stuff that you don't see that the iPhone is connected to, it uses as much energy as a refrigerator.


SCHWEITZER: OK. But, look, the U.S. is poised to be the largest producer of gas and oil in the world. We have the largest deposits of coal. We have the best wind and solar resources. France and Japan don't have any of that, and their back's against the wall, so they have to go to nuke. We don't. Now, Michael, we in the United States are blessed with all of these resources, but nukes only represent 20 percent of our electrical supply. If we simply conserve, like Ralph said, we could decrease our electric consumption by 20 percent and eliminate the need for our nukes that we have right now. Why don't we just conserve?

In Montana I challenged the state to decrease by 20 percent. We did it in two years. Why can't America do the same?

SHELLENBERGER: Well, actually what's happened is we become more efficient over time and use more energy. In fact, basically every developing country, every growing country uses more energy.

So to bet the planet strategy on conservation and efficiency is a fool's errand. Now, the good thing is there's actually science here to arbitrate, you know, to just figure this stuff out.

So we know that -- we know from the study I mentioned earlier nuclear saved 1.8 million lives. We now know what's happening in Germany, in Japan, where they've moved away from nuclear. Germany's emissions are going up. They're burning more coal. Japan has gone back to burning oil and natural gas. That's causing harm and deaths right now.

So when Ralph kind of constructs these very scary-sounding scenarios, which are designed to scare people, you can evaluate that against a long -- 40 years of a track record here, where we know that nuclear provides the safest baseload power source there is.

GINGRICH: Let me ask you this for a second. I can't resist, in terms of scary scenarios. Literally, from my grandmother's house in Weldon (ph), you can see Three Mile Island. And Phyllis and I went down a few years ago, and the film, "The Three Mile Island," the second -- the second reactor there has the longest continuous run of any reactor in the world.

Nobody, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were zero casualties from Three Mile Island. So isn't there a certainly amount of comfort that, in fact, even when there is a disaster -- the same thing is true of Fukushima. They've got a -- it's a very expensive project to fix, but it's not a disaster; it's not a Chernobyl-like event. And it may have taken the Soviet Union to have managed something badly enough to get a Chernobyl event. So isn't there a certain amount of scaremongering, to take something like Three Mile Island and then blow it up into a "we're going to lose half of Pennsylvania"?

NADER: I don't like to play Russian roulette with the American people. You just need one bad accident, and you have a huge area of America uninhabitable.

In Chernobyl, for example, there are 250,000 people who had to leave their homes and hundreds of square miles, empty villages and towns. Fukushima is still boiling around. That's an advanced technological society, but in your area of Pennsylvania, you've got spent fuel rods all around those plants. All over the United States, these aging plants, half of whom can't meet the fire prevention standards of the nuclear regulatory commission, by the way, today all -- they have all these spent fuel plants. Those are dead ringers for sabotage, for any earthquake, for a major storm.

The whole point, Newt, is we don't need nuclear power. Let's take a market aspect here. It's not insurable, except by the U.S. government, the Price-Anderson Act. It's not bankable except by U.S. government loan guarantees. The Wall Street financiers have done micro-analysis. It is not an economic proposition. They take 10 to 15 years to build, if they're lucky. They always come in 100, 200 percent cost overruns. Right? We haven't built one, a licensed one, since the 1970s, right? What does that mean in a market sense? It means it's corporate socialism. It's government guaranteed, and no one has skin in the game.

SCHWEITZER: What do you say, Mike? What do you say, Mike?

SHELLENBERGER: This is like -- you're blaming this on the market. You were yourself led these efforts in the early '70s to shut down the expansion of nuclear, to keep it at 20 percent rather than growing it.

Solar today, half to two-thirds of the cost of a solar system is subsidized by taxpayers and rate payers. When the wind tax credit, the main subsidy for wind, is threatened in Congress, the entire wind industry shuts down. So this is -- you're talking out both sides of your mouth here, Ralph. It's like you can't justify the subsidies for solar and wind on the one hand and then criticize what you call subsidies for nuclear energy.

NADER: Either no subsidies...

SHELLENBERGER: One other issue. The other issue is the liability. The nuclear industry, if you have a plant, they pay insurance for it. In terms of the liability, jet airliners have limited liability.

SCHWEITZER: Which is -- which is subsidized by the federal government since 1956, because the private insurance industry will not insure them.

SHELLENBERGER: And limited liability on jet accidents, as well. So should we not have limited liability for jet airliners? I mean, this is not about, for you and for much of the environmental movement that came of age in the '60s, this is about a fear of nuclear weapons.

One thing I wanted to address. Thirty-three countries in the world have nuclear weapons capability. Nine of them have decided to pursue nuclear weapons. So the association you're making between somehow having more nuclear energy and the countries that already have nuclear capacity is really misleading, Ralph. In other words, 33 countries could have nuclear weapons. They decided not to get them. We can expand nuclear energy in those countries that already have them. SCHWEITZER: Michael, I applaud you. I applaud you. You -- you are an outlier in the environmental community by supporting nuclear energy. Now I applaud that, because so many in the environmental community, and God love them, they are against, against, against, and then they don't have a legitimate solution to go forward. You have a legitimate solution to go forward. You can disagree with it.

But there will be some in the environmental community will wonder whether maybe you are funded by folks...

SHELLENBERGER: Absolutely not.

SCHWEITZER: ... who are supporting nuclear energy. To make the record straight, you're not funded by anybody in nuclear energy?

SHELLENBERGER: I've never been funded by any energy industry, any energy company at all. I haven't seen money from any solar or wind or any of those folks. So yes.

Let me just say one other thing about this. You know, last week, late last week -- I believe it was over the weekend -- four of the world's top climate scientists, including former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, they sent an open letter to the leaders of the environmental movement. And I think should you consider yourself a recipient of that letter, as well. Calling on them to embrace the push for advanced nuclear.

The response that they've gotten is just rejection out of hand. So what you have started to see now is you've seen Bill Gates, President Obama, Jeffrey Sachs (ph), Richard Branson, Paul Allen, Nathan Hervold (ph), the world's leading climate scientists all saying we need nuclear energy, because we can't bet the planet on solar, which employs one-tenth of one percent and on wind, which is totally dependent on federal subsidies. That is a very dangerous bet.


NADER: Michael...

SCHWEITZER: Let's talk about dangerous. Let's talk about dangerous. Let me just ask him a question.

NADER: This is ridiculous what he's saying. Warren Buffett, by the way, says nuclear power is uneconomical. OK, go ahead.

SCHWEITZER: So when they built Fukushima and Chernobyl, when they built Three Mile, they said it was a 1 in 10,000 odds that there would be a meltdown. And now we've had three meltdowns in 35 years in three countries. Would you take those odds to Las Vegas today? One in 10,000?

SHELLENBERGER: Well, so first of all, I was 8 years old when Three Mile Island happened, so I don't really feel like I should be responsible for whatever claims people were making when I was a baby.

Look, there's accidents in every energy industry. And the good thing is, actually, it's studied really carefully by the International Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, articles in "Lancet."

So Ralph can speculate all you want. The science is clear about the safety of nuclear. Like you said, you've had three serious accidents. Coal, when you don't have accidents, when it's functioning properly, kills 13,000 people a year, over 300,000 people a year. So, Ralph, what do you say to that? In other words, what about all your coal deaths? What's the solution?

NADER: If you'll only listen, the solution is massive potential here now for energy efficiency. Job intensive all over the country. Studied from "A" to "Z."

SHELLENBERGER: You've just repeated yourself. I've responded to that twice.

NADER: The second is solar energy is going to be the future of the world. I can cite you a million studies.

SHELLENBERGER: You've been saying that since the '70s. You've been saying that since the early '70s.

SCHWEITZER: All right. Halt, boys. Halt, boys.

GINGRICH: Hold on, guys. Stay here. Next, we "Ceasefire." And after this conversation, we're going to try to find out, is there anything that the two of you can agree on?

We also want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question: "Are you afraid to live near a nuclear power plant?" Tweet "yes" or "no "using #CROSSFIRE. We'll have the results after the break.


GINGRICH: Coming up, the answer to our "Fireback" question: "Are you afraid to live near a nuclear power plant?" There's still time to vote. Tweet "yes" or "no" using #CROSSFIRE.


GINGRICH: We're back with Ralph Nader and Michael Shellenberger now. Let's call a "Ceasefire." Is there anything you two can agree on?

NADER: Yes. Energy conservation, solar energy, and the need to find, for present nuclear plants, a deadly waste deposit for the next 250,000 years.

SHELLENBERGER: And I would just add there's actually good bipartisan legislation with Senator Murkowski and Senator Feinstein that's in the Senate to finally resolve this waste issue. I hope you will join us in supporting that.

GINGRICH: Let me just say thanks to Ralph Nader and Michael Shellenberger. Go to Facebook or twitter to weigh in on our "Fireback" question: "Are you afraid to live near a nuclear power plant?" Right now, 55 percent of you say yes; 45 percent say no.

SCHWEITZER: The debate continues online at, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

We also want to congratulate Newt Gingrich on his latest book, "Breakout."

From the left, I'm Brian Schweitzer.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

Join us tomorrow for another edition of CROSSFIRE.