Reality Before the Renaissance: Making Nuclear Power Part of the Climate Solution



November 12, 2007


Thank you very much. I am honored to share the stage with Jeff Immelt, Senator Carper and Adolfo Garcia Rodriguez – and honored also to be a part of this very important discussion.

The theme you are here to discuss this week is “Making the Renaissance Real.” And, thinking back to another Renaissance, I believe we can draw a few lessons for this industry. Because the Renaissance that happened in Europe in the 14th through the 17th centuries was founded on reason, facts, and the pursuit of knowledge. The artists of the time, Leonardo and the rest, set out to portray the human form, light and perspective in more realistic and more natural ways. The commitment across literature, science, and the arts was to render and understand things as they are in the real world.

And this is our challenge today, I believe, as we ponder the renaissance that is the focus of this meeting. We must render and understand things as they are in the real world. We must take a hard look at the facts before us, and we must commit ourselves to achieving a fuller understanding of our world.

In the context of this discussion, that means achieving a fuller understanding of the climate and energy challenges we face today. And it also means understanding the possible solutions to those challenges in a more complete way—taking a hard look at the facts, questioning every assumption, and embracing reason as we look at the implications of these solutions for our world.

And so, with that as a preface, I want to use the time I have this morning to take what I hope is a reasoned look at the future of this industry: nuclear power. And my focus, of course, will be to look at the future of this industry in the context of protecting the global climate. I want to paint a picture for you – and it will be a quick sketch, I promise – of where we are in our understanding of climate change, and in our understanding of what we need to do to address it. And I want to then talk about what you need to do, as an industry, if you are indeed serious about making the renaissance real.

I believe very strongly that nuclear power needs to be a part of the solution, a part of the picture, as America and the world respond to climate change. But, at the same time, I also recognize that there are real challenges standing in the way of this industry’s future growth. And those challenges need to be a part of the picture, too, or we are not living in the real world.

So, first a sketch of where we are today in our understanding of the climate challenge. Over the last decade, the case for a skeptical, wait-and-see approach to climate change has melted faster than summer sea ice in the Arctic. We now know from the science that this is a real and urgent problem. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that global temperatures will increase between 3.2 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Sea levels will rise by as much as a foot to a foot-and-a-half. Many species will be lost. In addition, there is a 90-percent chance or greater that the world will see more hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation events. And it is likely we will see more droughts as well.
And this is not solely a problem of the future; it is happening right now. I mentioned the Arctic sea ice. This summer, we saw it shrink to its smallest recorded extent ever. According to the National Sea Ice Data Center, at the height of the melting, sea ice declined at a rate of 81,000 square miles per day. That’s the equivalent of losing an area the size of Kansas – in a day. Researchers say this rate of loss was unprecedented in the satellite record. Of course, the sea ice will come back as winter temperatures return, but even the wintertime ice has been in decline – with 2007 and 2006 marking the lowest winter ice extent ever.
Clearly, we have a very serious problem on our hands. And the reason we know we have a problem is because of the science, which now tells us in unequivocal terms that, if left unabated, climate change will have tremendous negative consequences for our country and our world.
The science also tells us something else. … It tells us there is no longer any doubt about what is causing this problem: greenhouse gas emissions from human sources—and, most of those emissions come from three key sectors: electricity; transportation, primarily automobiles; and buildings.

As a result of all these emissions, the level of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere is growing. Advance details from the latest IPCC synthesis report tell us we are at 450 parts per million already; that is a measure of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, if we discount the shading effect of aerosols. And the reason why this number (450 parts per million) is significant is that we have reached this level more than a decade earlier than we thought just a short time ago. What’s more, scientists tell us that in order to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, we must stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a level of roughly – you guessed it – 450 parts per million. Obviously, this is a mammoth task that will require bold actions, actions that must begin now and continue for decades to come.

What kind of actions? Well, to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at this level, we need to reduce worldwide emissions by 60 to 80 percent before 2050 -- 60 to 80 percent. And we know which sector of the economy is the largest single source of these emissions? Electricity generation. In the United States alone, power generation and heat together produce 42 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. Globally, the figure is 41 percent.

Now obviously, there is no way to reduce those emissions to the levels we need to see without making some dramatic changes. Many of you are familiar, I am sure, with the work of Robert Socolow at Princeton. Well, Professor Socolow took a very reasoned look at what kinds of actions it will take to prevent the worst effects of climate change. He came up with the concept of what he called “stabilization wedges.” These wedges show various actions we can take to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions at the current level of seven gigatons per year. I should note that the projection under a business-as-usual scenario is for those emissions to rise to 14 gigatons over the next 50 years. So basically, we need to lop 7 gigatons off the business-as-usual path. And, conveniently, the professor came up with seven wedges that could conceivably get this done. Each would deliver a 1-gigaton reduction in projected emissions.

Here is an example of a wedge: putting 2 billion cars on the road at 60 miles per gallon instead of 30 miles per gallon. Or, in the electric power sector, implementing carbon capture and storage at 1,600 large coal plants; or building 1 million 2-megawatt wind turbines to displace coal power. And here’s the wedge that should be of interest to this group: building 700 gigawatts of nuclear capacity to displace coal power. Do the math, and you see this is twice the current global nuclear capacity. Obviously, a huge endeavor – but it gives you an idea of the level of action that is needed to address this enormous problem we are facing.

Professor Socolow is not recommending any specific solution. He is not saying that these wedges he talks about are the exact paths we have to take. No, he is showing us the kinds of things we need to be talking about, the kinds of actions we need to consider. And, with these wedges now in mind, we can begin to weigh what’s doable – and where we might be able to find the reductions we need.

And so, as we look at these wedges, and as we scan the horizon for opportunities to reduce emissions of these gases in a substantial way, we have to consider how this industry, nuclear power, can be a part of the solution. We would be foolish not to. Nuclear is one of the few options on the table for producing electricity with no carbon emissions. And, it is already delivering 20 percent or more of U.S. electricity, and more in other countries: 78 percent in France, 54 percent in Belgium, 39 percent in South Korea, and 30 percent in Japan. The IAEA says nuclear accounts for 15 percent of electricity generation worldwide.

Some environmental groups feel that this industry poses as serious a threat to the world as climate change itself and should therefore be opposed at all costs. At the Pew Center, we don’t feel this way. What we have always said is that climate change is such a serious problem that we cannot afford to take any option off the table. We simply cannot ignore the fact that nuclear power could make a substantial contribution to our efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.

However, there are other things we can’t ignore . And these are the potential problems associated with the expanded use of nuclear power in this country and throughout the world. As I said at the start, the other Renaissance taught us about the rewards that come with rendering and understanding things as they are in the real world. And these are not just artistic or spiritual rewards I am talking about. The growth of this industry, its continued success, ultimately will depend on whether it follows the advice of Jim Collins, the bestselling author of Good to Great. “Confront the brutal facts,” he tells us. And the brutal facts for nuclear power include the fact that we as a society still have not resolved a number of threshold issues that are essential to this industry’s future.

Of course, nuclear power is not alone in this respect. Other energy technologies that could potentially deliver substantial reductions in emissions face their own hurdles. A lot of people, for example, myself included, regularly talk about how important it is that we figure out how to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, and do this on a large scale. But the technologies for doing this are still untested on a commercial scale at coal-fired power plants, we still haven’t proven you can store these emissions underground over long periods of time, and there will likely be serious public concerns about injecting these gases into the earth.

Wind and solar power face obstacles, too. To get renewables to a level where they could make an appreciable difference in reducing emissions, we would have to deal with a whole host of issues – from public opposition to large-scale wind farms to the thorny problem of these energy sources being intermittent. We need large-scale electricity storage.

So yes, nuclear power is not alone in having its challenges. But to move ahead without a full accounting of those challenges, and without plans for addressing them in a serious way, is to doom this industry’s renaissance before it even starts.

In other words, simply offering up a carbon-free source of electrical power is not enough. You need to do more. You need to show the world that it can enjoy the benefits of nuclear power without creating new risks or imposing new burdens on societies and the environment. The biggest brutal fact that this industry needs to confront? How to deal with nuclear waste.

We need a new conversation in this country, and around the world, about nuclear waste.
This conversation should be founded on a cool-headed assessment of what is feasible and practical for us to do. Even if the Yucca Mountain site ultimately is approved for long-term storage (and that’s still a big “if”), it will be decades before any waste ends up in Nevada. That is a fact. Yes, we can continue to store waste at the plants where it’s generated. But that’s not a realistic strategy for the long haul, especially if we want to add capacity, which will only mean more places in more parts of the country where more and more of this waste is stored.

We really need both an interim solution and a long-term solution. And it is time for a more serious conversation in this country about interim solutions for storing nuclear waste. I am talking, of course, about the potential of centralized dry cask storage, especially for spent fuel that currently is kept at decommissioned plants. Today, the debate is all about temporary vs. permanent storage. And it is getting us nowhere. It’s like Hannity and Colmes. There is never any resolution. We need to resolve this issue. And, I believe we will have a better chance of resolving it if we begin a new conversation, if we ratchet down the rhetoric, and if we consider other options, such as interim storage in selected, centralized locations, while at the same time working to make long-term storage a reality.

Responding to the nuclear waste issue in a reasoned and responsible way also can yield progress against other obstacles to this industry’s expansion. One of these obstacles is concern about reprocessing and nuclear proliferation.

Just the other week, we learned how the National Academy of Sciences feels about the Bush administration’s signature waste-reprocessing plan. The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership—and I quote—“should not go forward,” according to the NAS. Among the problems: it’s too expensive and it’s founded on unproven technologies.

It is hard to ignore the fact that more nuclear power means more waste and more reprocessing. While safeguards exist in the US and other countries to prevent the spread of these materials, there remain real risks that would have to be addressed; and the ability to cope with these risks varies widely around the world.

Of course, these are not the only barriers to the expansion of nuclear power. There also continue to be public concerns about the safety of this industry. We all know that U.S. plants are safer and more secure than in the past. But this is a fight you will have to continue to fight. There is no way around it if you are going to be building more plants. Transparency is crucial – companies need to build trust with the public so that people know you have taken every precaution. And, as an industry, you also need to pay attention to what is happening in other countries. Expanding the use of nuclear power in places with weak regulatory oversight, or unproven construction practices, is not in the long-term interests of this industry. Because, as you all know very well, just one problem at one nuclear power facility anywhere in the world can be a problem for nuclear power everywhere.

Last but not least among the potential barriers to nuclear power is the issue of cost. The participants in the Keystone Center discussions said a reasonable estimate for life-cycle costs of nuclear power is between 8 and 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. Granted, this is higher than some industry and US DOE estimates of 4 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour, but there is no denying that nuclear power, under present-day circumstances, is expensive relative to its main competitor: coal. For comparison’s sake, a coal plant operating without carbon capture has life-cycle costs of around 4.8 cents per kilowatt-hour. A conventional coal-fired plant, in other words, produces electricity at roughly half the cost of a nuclear plant. This is a huge barrier to this industry’s expansion, as all of you know very well.

But something interesting happens when you try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the coal-fired plant by adding carbon capture and sequestration. The life-cycle cost goes up significantly, and according to estimates, could be as high as 8 cents, which is the same as the Keystone Group’s low-end estimate for nuclear. So now, you start to reach a level of parity with coal. But again, this only happens if we launch a determined effort to capture carbon emissions from coal-fired plants.

And so even if we finally figure out solutions to the big issues like nuclear waste storage, this industry’s competitiveness ultimately will depend on one question: whether the United States and the world finally get serious about reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. There needs to be a price on carbon. That is the only way to create a level playing field for nuclear power. And it is the only way, in the Pew Center’s opinion, to achieve real progress in protecting the climate.

GE understands this, and I applaud Jeff Immelt for his leadership in the fight for climate solutions. I am proud to say that GE is a member of the Pew Center’s Business Environmental Leadership Council, along with others in the nuclear power industry, such as Exelon and Duke Energy. These companies also are leaders in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership. This is a coalition of 27 major corporations and six NGOs, including the Pew Center. And it is calling on Congress to enact mandatory domestic climate policies at the earliest possible date.

USCAP believes Congress should pass legislation that sets firm short and medium-term binding emissions targets in the United States. The ultimate goal: reduce emissions by 60 to 80 percent by 2050. In the view of the USCAP partners, a cap-and-trade system should be the cornerstone of U.S. climate policy. Right now, the cap-and-trade legislation that’s getting the most attention is the bill introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman and John Warner. And I believe very strongly that the nuclear power industry can and must play a constructive role in the debate on this measure.

The only caution I will offer is this: you need to focus on the big picture in this debate. And that is the competitive advantage this industry gains from a comprehensive climate policy that once and for all puts a price on carbon. More nuclear subsidies are not the answer; they are short term, ephemeral, and they may well scuttle the chances for this bill (and others) by emboldening (or simply ticking off) your opponents.

Right now, the best subsidy for nuclear power is a comprehensive climate policy. Because the sooner we have a cap-and-trade program in place, the sooner we will be able to determine in a reasoned way which energy options make the most sense, both for the economy and for the environment. And the sooner this industry can get past the cost issue and have a real discussion about the potential of expanded nuclear power as a solution to our energy and environmental needs.

Is cap-and-trade the only answer to climate change? No. Does this mean government should do nothing to help advance especially promising technologies? No. The Pew Center is a strong believer in technology-neutral policies like cap-and-trade. However, we also believe the federal government needs to be involved in solving some of the most urgent problems facing key energy alternatives (problems like nuclear waste storage).

I want to wrap up by making the point again that nuclear power can be an important part of the solution to climate change. We can make the nuclear renaissance real. But first, we need to learn from the other Renaissance and take a more discerning look at the world around us – what’s possible, where the problems are, and how to overcome them in ways that don’t create still more problems for humanity and the world. A great thinker from the earlier Renaissance, Galileo, said this: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

And so I encourage you to rely on your senses, your reason and your intellect as you set out to make this industry’s renaissance real. And I want to leave you with two priorities for the months and years ahead: one, help start a new conversation about the nuclear waste issue that leads to real solutions, including interim storage; and two, get out there and do everything you can to support comprehensive climate policies for this country – not short-term fixes but policies that offer real answers to our long-range climate and energy challenges.

Thank you very much.