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The Future Of Nuclear Energy In The U.S.
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, the American nuclear
industry is facing questions about the safety of power plants and the
storage of spent nuclear fuel, questions we're going to talk about with
my guest, Matthew Wald. He's a reporter for the New York Times and has
been covering nuclear power since 1979.
Contamination from Fukushima is spreading. The International Atomic
Energy Agency is reporting that dangerous levels of the radioactive
isotope cesium-137 were found 25 miles from the Fukushima Dai-ichi
nuclear power plant. That's more than double the amount of radioactive
contamination that the Soviet Union used as an indicator when it
recommended abandoning the land surrounding the Chernobyl reactor.
Matthew Wald reports today that tests of milk samples taken last week in
Spokane, Washington indicate the presence of radioactive iodine from the
nuclear power plant in Japan, but according to the Environmental
Protection Agency, the levels are far below those at which action would
have to be taken.
I asked Wald if he was concerned about increased radiation levels in the
U.S. from Fukushima.
Mr. MATTHEW WALD (New York Times): We live in a radioactive environment.
There are various materials around us with varying levels of natural
radioactivity. We're going to add slightly to that from this accident.
It's not going to mean a whole lot.
In the United States, we have a sort of odd history. There was one
occasion during the Cold War when we were blowing up nuclear bombs in
Nevada, where a large dose was delivered in Upstate New York because the
cloud traveled for about three days and then there was a rainstorm and
it washed out.
Japan is too far away from Hawaii, from the continental United States,
to get any concentrated dose here. Our understanding of very small doses
of radiation is not good. There's a assumption that any amount is bad
for you, but there's also a fairly widespread belief in the technical
community that if you add an increment that's just a small fraction of
natural background, it probably is not going to make any difference.
GROSS: How close are the majority of the reactors in the United States
to the reactors in Fukushima?
Mr. WALD: We have a couple dozen that resemble the Fukushima reactor,
except that we probably don't have any that are vulnerable to tsunami.
The reactor builders and designers, way back in the '60s and '70s, used
a variety of strategies to assure safety.
Some doubt has been cast on the model now in Japan, although to be
honest, if you had swamped a different model reactor with a tsunami like
this, you'd be in for lots of trouble.
The question is: What can we do to reduce our risk not so much of
tsunami but of natural attack or malevolent terrorist attack that's
beyond what these places were designed for?
And the answer is, the industry says it's already done a substantial
amount after September 11th, and the NRC agrees with that, and the NRC
says we're going to look again and see what sort of generic preparations
we can make for when things get much worse than we ever thought they
GROSS: Well, you mentioned the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I
think a lot of people wonder: How politicized is the NRC? How industry-
controlled is the NRC? Or is it a neutral, scientific, technical group
Mr. WALD: Well, it's clearly a highly technical agency. Outsiders
differ. It does not start from the premise that a lot of nuclear critics
start from, which is: Oh my God, this is awful, we're all going to die.
It starts from the engineering premise that everything in life has some
risk and we can reduce risk by smart engineering, and we have reduced
risks that way, and we need additional work every time we discover some
phenomena, some catastrophe somewhere in the world, to see what this
The commission has had some lapses in the past, where it's had blind
spots or it's been too deferential to industry. You get a variety of
readings about whether that's the case right now.
I do know that they look at Japan very seriously, and literally they
won't say: Well, we're okay, we're not going to have big tsunamis. But
they will, in fact, draw conclusions when they get a little more
information. Right now information is a little contradictory and
GROSS: There are reactors in the United States near fault lines and near
hurricane zones. Is there confidence that the reactors can withstand
earthquakes or hurricanes? I know they're not earthquakes followed
tsunamis, but they can still be pretty disruptive.
Mr. WALD: I have to admit I learned some surprising things here. One of
them is: Yes, there are fault lines that are near reactors. There's a
joke that a reactor is just a device for locating a fault, because if
you built a reactor, you're sure to find a fault nearby.
But many, many active seismic zones and earthquakes are not traced to
individual faults. The question isn't: Is there a fault? The question
is: Is it active and what kind of ground motion can it produce at your
The NRC thinks it has a good handle on that. There's one instance of a
reactor suffering more ground motion than the designers thought it
would. It didn't show major damage as a result.
We do have hurricanes all over the East. Andrew smashed right into one
in Florida. It showed some damage, but it basically came through with
its safety systems intact, and the surrounding neighborhood was
destroyed. You don't expect to get through these things without damage.
There are some preparations we have made that would be good for post-
hurricane, post-tornado, which is another postulated event, post-
earthquake, where we have extra generators that are powered by diesel
fuel, extra diesel fuel in hardened storage. We have stocks of pumps and
batteries and other crucial materials we could move to a site quickly.
Essentially, though, when you get to the Fukushima Dai-ichi stage, the
question is: Are you prepared for things you hadn't predicted? And the
answer is: How can you tell? We're certainly prepared for some things we
haven't predicted, but tell me what it is we're preparing for.
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Wald, and he's been covering nuclear energy
since 1979. He's a reporter for the New York Times.
How old are most of the reactors in the United States? When was the last
time a reactor was built?
Mr. WALD: It turns out to be a trick question. The last one that was
ordered and not canceled was October of 1973. The Tennessee Valley
Authority has two called Watts Bar that it started to build, ran into
financial trouble, management trouble, mothballed them for a while,
finished off Watts Bar Unit 1 in 1996, which makes it the youngest, and
recently decided it's going to finish Watts Bar Unit 2.
We have two sites in the United States where ground has been broken for
brand new reactors, one in Georgia, one in South Carolina. Those don't
yet have construction licenses, but you can go ahead and dig a
foundation. And the idea for those is those would be about five years
GROSS: So since the majority were built in 1973 or before, is that
technology considered old now and out of date?
Mr. WALD: It's a little bit like airplanes. You can get on an airplane
from that era and it's got updated electronics and it's got carefully
inspected parts. But yes, it's an old airplane.
The new designs are fundamentally different. Either they have what's
called passive safety systems - for example, you need cooling water. You
don't want to have to rely on a pump to get the cooling water there.
Let's put the cooling water tank on the roof instead of downstairs. So
that's an example of a passive system. Or they have more backup safety
systems than existing designs.
The NRC and the engineers say, but this gets a little technical, that
their chance of a core damage accident is lower by a factor of 10 to
100. You and I are not going to wait around long enough to see whether
their chance of meltdown is one in 10,000 years or one in a million
years. But that's what the math that the builders and the regulators say
GROSS: So one of the issues being reexamined in American plants is the
battery life. So if there is a power outage because of a destructive
event like a tsunami or an earthquake or here a hurricane or a tornado,
that there's still power to continue the operations and continue, most
importantly, cooling the fuel rods. Do I have that right?
Mr. WALD: Right.
GROSS: Right, because if those rods aren't cooled, you're eventually
heading toward meltdown and...
Mr. WALD: The fuel - right, the fuel generates heat even when the
reactor isn't running, and unless you remove the heat, eventually it'll
overheat, and the fuel rods will break open, and you'll get a release of
fission products, of atoms that were created when uranium was split. And
all of those are radioactive. They're unstable. They want to give off a
particle or a ray, and that's bad stuff.
GROSS: Okay, so the plants in the Fukushima complex had eight-hour
Mr. WALD: Right.
GROSS: Most of the plants in America have four-hour batteries.
Mr. WALD: Correct.
GROSS: Ninety-three of the - was it 111 plants?
Mr. WALD: Hundred and four.
GROSS: Hundred and four plants - 93 have four-hour batteries, and 11
have eight-hour batteries. But the eight-hour batteries weren't enough
in Japan, so...
Mr. WALD: Correct. People are now...
GROSS: We have less than not enough.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. WALD: That's correct. Congressman Markey of Massachusetts, a long-
time critic of the industry, has a bill he's introducing that would
require 72-hour batteries.
I should say that, by the way, the batteries are never enough to run
cooling pumps, but they are enough to run valves, which are electrically
operated, and these valves are sometimes in places you can't get to in
They can run instruments that tell you pressures, flow rates,
temperature. And some of these reactors have pumps that run on steam,
which you tend to have in abundance if you're still producing heat.
So between the control provided by the batteries and the raw power
provided by the steam, a longer battery would seem to be one way to
insure yourself against really, really prolonged station blackout, loss
of offsite power, loss of emergency diesels.
The design philosophy in the United States was we got twice as many
diesels as we need or three times as many diesels as we need. If they
all break, surely we can get them running again in four hours. We were
not thinking of tsunami.
The diesels are designed to survive an earthquake, but now we wonder,
after Japan: Are there situations where something's going to happen we
didn't think of and we have neither the grid nor the diesels?
GROSS: So how much of an effort is there now to have more diesels or
more battery power or any other option that can help if a plant is
Mr. WALD: Well, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just begun a 90-
day review, and it'll give interim reports along the way. And one of the
things they'll look at is: How hard would it be to add more batteries?
And is that the best thing we should be doing? They may come up with
some other solution.
The reactors have always relied on the grid. When we had the big Eastern
blackout in 2003, it took down a bunch of reactors, and we don't like
cutting off outside power and letting the reactors screech to a halt
because that's an opportunity for something to go wrong.
So over the years, there's been a lot of attention to this loss-of-
offsite-power problem. Diesels are a little bit like a truck. They've
got enormous batteries to get started, but every once in a while you
have trouble getting an internal combustion engine started.
So this area has already gotten a lot of attention and is about to get a
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Wald. He's been reporting on nuclear energy
since 1979. He's a reporter for the New York Times. Let's take a short
break here, and then we'll talk more about the state of nuclear power in
America. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about the state of nuclear power in America, in the
wake of the nuclear catastrophe in Japan. And my guest is Matthew Wald.
He's been covering nuclear energy since 1979. He's a reporter for the
New York Times.
So we're re-evaluating diesel power at nuclear plants, the battery
lifetime to power a reactor if the electricity has gone out. Aren't we
also re-evaluating what to do with spent fuel rods?
Mr. WALD: Yes. In the United States, at the time our reactors were
designed, we anticipated that the rods would sit in these cooling-water
pools for maybe five years and then be hauled off and chemically
processed to recover plutonium that was made in the reactors while they
operated, and then you can use the plutonium as fuel.
That technology turned out to be financially unfeasible, and Presidents
Ford and Carter decided it was not a good example for the U.S. to set
because if you're going to recover the plutonium, you can use it for
bombs. So we didn't do that.
Then we set out on this long effort to find a place to bury nuclear
waste. We had the government sign contracts with utilities. The
government would start taking the stuff in 1998.
When President Obama came into the White House, he said that our prime
candidate, Yucca Mountain, was not a good site, we weren't going to do
that. Yucca Mountain might have opened in 2019 if everything went
perfectly, but I don't think it was going to go perfectly.
Right now we have no date at all. So the pools have gotten more and more
full. We have built some what we call dry cask storage, which is you
take the older fuel that isn't making so much heat, you put it in a
sealed steel can, you fill the can with something inert so it can't
rust, and then you put the can into this little concrete silo, and it's
cooled by air. And it can sit there for decades and decades without much
You've got to guard it, but you don't have to do much maintenance. It's
got no moving parts.
We may end up doing more of that now because we may be happier with a
little less fuel in the pools. If you lose cooling in the pools, you've
got many days to take care of the problem, but if you can't take care of
the problem, you end up where Japan is now.
GROSS: These dry casks that some fuel is stored in now, they're licensed
by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for 20 to 40 years. But doesn't
federal law say that nuclear waste has to be safely stored in canisters
for a million years?
And, like, that's just - I can't even wrap my head around that. How do
you know if something can withstand a million years of storage?
Mr. WALD: A million years is the Yucca Mountain problem that Nevada took
the Department of Energy to court, and the Department of Energy was
planning on a 10,000-year safe repository. And Nevada said that ain't
what the law says. And the court agreed. The court agreed that you had
to project ahead a million years.
The dry casks are a solution that will go for decades. The Nuclear
Regulatory Commission initially licensed them for 20 years, put in an
extension of another 20, recently went through this proceeding to decide
that it was confident you could store in casks for decades after a
reactor closed, meaning the casks are probably good for somewhere on
order of 100 years, but we'll figure it out as we go along.
In that sense, it's not an urgent problem. But we don't, at this time,
have a clear path forward on what to do after storage in casks. The
president did appoint a blue-ribbon commission. It's supposed to report
in the next few weeks. It could recommend a variety of things.
It could recommend a new way to find a place for burial. The method we
used turned out not to be very good. The method we used was let Congress
decide, and Congress is not great on geochemistry.
It could decide we need a new industry. We need either to go back to the
original conception of reprocessing this fuel, pulling out the
plutonium. You still end up with waste, but it's not quite so long-
lived. Or a new kind of reactor that takes the really long half-life
stuff and busts it up into shorter half-life stuff. So you then have a
problem that runs to the hundreds of years instead of the millions of
But whatever we do is likely to cost money and is not likely to produce
an instant solution.
GROSS: So if I hear you correctly, a hundred years from now, after we're
dead, people are going to have to figure out what to do with these dry
casks storing spent nuclear rods.
Mr. WALD: The cask problem is a problem, but it's a slow problem. You
can - we now have casks sitting in places where we used to have
reactors, but we've torn down the reactors. So we've got these spent-
fuel storage installations. They're very high-quality concrete. They're
surrounded by barbed wire, razor wire. They're lit. They're guarded.
They look a little bit like a basketball court at a maximum-security
But we've got them in dumb places. We've got them scattered around the
country. And over the decades, we're going to have more of them
scattered around the country.
If you've got one next to an operating reactor, it's not a big deal. If
the reactor gets so old you close it up and tear it down, it then
becomes just a pain to deal with. Certainly centralizing those materials
would be one step.
If the cask eventually wears out, you could put it in another cask.
We're not talking about an impossibly large volume of material. And as
the decades go by, it does get easier to handle, although you do still
have to handle the stuff underwater because you need the radiation
shielding that the water provides.
But in the long term, yes, casks are not the answer. We're going to have
to do something else.
GROSS: You know, we've been talking about some of the problems storing
spent nuclear fuel rods. We've been talking about some of the
environmental problems storing it. But there are political issues
surrounding it too.
You had mentioned Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which was going to be
developed into a storage space for spent nuclear fuel, but now that
looks in question.
Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader and senator from Nevada, is
opposed to this. He says it's never going to happen. President Obama is
opposed to it. So do locations change depending on the makeup of
Mr. WALD: That's certainly how we picked Yucca. At the time that it was
chosen, in the early '80s, the alternative sites were in Texas and
Washington State, and both of those places had very powerful members of
Congress and Nevada didn't. Since then things have changed.
Yucca was chosen by the finest geologists in the United States Senate,
which is to say they may not have made the best technical choice. Yucca
is an oddball in terms of its geology.
Around the world, countries are looking to bury nuclear waste deep in
wet environments, because if you - if it's wet enough, you don't get
into a rust problem. Yucca is, in theory, dry. In fact, the mountain
turns out to have a lot of water running through it, and its geology
presents different problems.
GROSS: My guest, Matthew Wald, will be back in the second half of the
show. He's a reporter for the New York Times who covers nuclear energy
and energy-related issues and technology. I'm Terry Gross and this is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Terry Gross back with Matthew Wald, a New
York Times reporter who has been covering nuclear energy since 1979.
We're talking about questions that are being asked about the safety of
American nuclear power plants and the storage of spent nuclear fuel in
the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophe. Most of
America's nuclear plants were built decades ago.
So if most of the reactors in America were built in 1973 or before, why
did construction come to a halt after that?
Mr. WALD: The reactors were ordered in the '60s and '70s when we had
very rapidly-growing electric demand. And then in â74 we had the Arab
oil embargo. At the time we were using oil to make electricity and we
figured reactors would be cheaper. We slipped into recession. The rate
of growth of electric demand slowed and stopped and we ran into trouble
building the reactors. We were building them too fast. We were putting
up big structures before the designs were complete and costs got out of
And as a result, even before Three Mile Island, that accident was March
of 1979, we had a lot of utilities looking at slack demand, we're going
to have too much capacity and they had huge cost overruns, so they
stopped ordering and started canceling.
The situation looked like it might be turning around in the '90s and
then after 2000, when the reactors were seen to have a new virtue, which
is they don't produce carbon dioxide. And we got to the point where
various manufacturers had come up with new designs. The government in
2005 said it would offer loan guarantees to help get the first few built
and people started talking about a nuclear renaissance. We don't quite
have a renaissance at this point. We've got two plants under
construction, each with two units, and it's not clear how many more
weâre going to get. But to be honest, it wasn't clear how many more we
were going to get even before the Fukushima.
GROSS: Before Fukushima nuclear power was being basically rebranded as a
green form of energy because, as you said, it doesn't produce greenhouse
gases, although there has always been fear of, you know, meltdown and
radiation and, you know, horrible consequences that aren't greenhouse
gases but are other forms of dangers. How successful has that rebranding
of nuclear energy been?
Mr. WALD: Before Fukushima, polls showed high tolerance, if not
enthusiasm, at least tolerance for new reactors. Some of that has
shifted. But the flipside is you don't need a national consensus to
build a reactor in a particular spot. You need a local consensus. That
consensus probably still exists in lots of places, especially adjacent
to existing reactors. It means a lot of jobs. It means a continuing
stream of tax revenue. But the financial situation may not be in place
so it may not be public opinion that makes a difference here. It may
just be the finances.
The biggest development in the electricity markets in the last two years
isn't nuclear. It's that the price of natural gas has sunk to very low
levels. This is a separate problem, it has to do with fracking, it has
to do with other technologies. But the result is competition in the
electric market has gotten stiffer and it really isn't clear you can
make money building a reactor.
GROSS: How many nuclear reactor licenses are under consideration now by
the Nuclear Regulatory Commission?
Mr. WALD: There are only two that are really active going forward. There
are - the Southern Company wants to build two new reactors at its Vogtle
site, which already has two reactors, near Augusta, Georgia. And there's
an applicant in South Carolina who wants to build two across the Savanna
River in South Carolina. There are others at earlier stages in the
process, but it's not really clear, given the financial situation right
now, even before Fukushima, how many of those are actually going to
GROSS: Then there's also the issue of license renewal and are there a
lot of nuclear facilities up for license renewal?
Mr. WALD: Yes. Of the 104 now running, more than half have already
gotten a 20-year extension and almost all the others are going to apply.
And we even have talk of extending - giving a second 20-year extension
from 60 years through to 80 years. At this point that's just preliminary
engineering work. That is a pretty narrowly-focused technical process in
which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission looks at the parts of the plant
that age, the wiring, the metal, etcetera, and asks the simple question:
do these things get worse with age? What are we doing to see that
they'll still work as they get older?
Now we got calls after Fukushima for let's hold off on relicensing till
we know what happened at Fukushima. The NRC has thus far resisted that
idea. It said look, if we find something out of Fukushima that shows a
flaw in our reactors, we're going to order a fix immediately. Weâre
going to order a fix whether it already got a 20-year extension, whether
it was due for a 20-year extension two years from now, etcetera, but
weâre going to go ahead with our relicensing process. That has annoyed a
lot of people outside the agency, but that's where it stands right now.
GROSS: Now in New York for instance, Governor Andrew Cuomo does not want
two of the Indian Point reactors to be relicensed. He's concerned for
one that there are, thereâs a pattern of small but active faults that
was discovered near there. And he's worried about like if something does
go wrong how do you evacuate New York City? And what does that mean for
the future of New York?
So what's that showdown looking like between Governor Cuomo saying I
don't want these reactors relicensed and the NRC probably saying that
they are fine to be relicensed? And, of course, the owner of the
facility will want them relicensed.
Mr. WALD: In fairness, Governor Cuomo opposed the relicensing - license
extension even before he was governor. The exact applicability of
Fukushima to Indian Point has not yet been determined. I'm sure it will
be or I'm sure we'll learn collateral lessons. Indian Point is in a
somewhat different category, which is, it's not only a private asset,
which by the way, the state used to own half of it, used to own and
operate Indian Point Three - wasn't very good at it, but it owned it.
Indian Point is needed at the moment for its electricity production for
adding stability to the grid. If Indian Point had to close, you'd have
to make some other arrangements first. You'd have to build new
transmission or probably new generation.
GROSS: So that would be quite a challenge. But nevertheless, the
governor opposes relicensing two of those plants.
Mr. WALD: Well, Indian Point is an interesting case in the sense that
its location doesn't make an accident any more likely; it simply makes
it a little harder to cope with. The current emergency planning standard
is you've got to plan for evacuations within 10 miles. If you had to
conduct an evacuation or telling people to take shelter beyond 10 miles,
you might have to do that but you don't have to plan for that in advance
because you'll have time to do it.
The complicating factor right now is that the American Embassy in Tokyo
has told Americans to evacuate 50 miles from Fukushima, something not
contemplated as happening quickly in the American emergency planning
guidelines. Now the emergency planning guidelines when in soon after the
Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and since that time no evacuation or
sheltering that I know of has ever been ordered. That's not to say it
can't happen, but some people doubt that this is a likely occurrence.
GROSS: Now in Vermont there's also an ongoing fight this time between
the state legislature, which doesn't want the Vermont Yankee reactor
relicensed for another 20 years. They're arguing that the plant is too
old to be reliable but the licensing seems to be moving forward. Yes?
Mr. WALD: I think whatâs happening in Vermont is interesting because the
legislature is just literally wrong. And it's saying things that aren't
quite so because it has a different motive. The plant, in fact, operates
better now than it did in the past. It has fewer automatic shutdowns. It
has more hours online every year.
What they're really worried about isn't whether it will shut down
automatically, whether it will break down. What they're worried about is
whether it's safe. But they're not allowed to regulate safety, that's a
federal prerogative. So instead they talk about reliability.
And the Vermont Yankee plant had has some black eyes. One of them is it
had a cooling tower, a low-rise wooden cooling tower, not one of these
huge concrete hourglass things that collapsed. There were leaks from
underground pipes around the country and Vermont officials asked Vermont
Yankee whether it could have such leaks and plant officials said no, no,
we don't have any pipes like that. And sure enough, it did have pipes
like that and they did leak tritium. This was not a health hazard but it
sure didn't look good to have the company executives testifying that
weâre not going to have that problem and then we don't have those parts
and then they do have those parts and they did have that problem. Itâs
had assorted other problems over the years.
Vermont is really in an interesting position because when the reactor
changed hands the state stepped in and said we want some control here.
We want to be able to control whether the license is extended, and the
buyer, Entergy Nuclear, agreed. So uniquely, the Vermont Legislature may
in fact be in a position to prevent the plant from operating beyond its
license expiration, which is about a year from now.
GROSS: Would that be unprecedented?
Mr. WALD: Yes. The only time that an American reactor â a power reactor
- has been shut by some kind of public action was the Sacramento
Municipal Utility District in California. The voters of the district -
itâs a muni, itâs a consumer-owned, a government-owned complex - voted
to shut Rancho Seco just because it didn't work very well. That was in
the '80s. This would be the second time. This time it would be a
legislature not the voters.
GROSS: My guest is that New York Times reporter Matthew Wald. Weâll talk
more about nuclear power in the U.S. after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter Matthew Wald. He's been
covering nuclear energy since 1979. Weâre talking about safety issues
relating to nuclear power in the U.S.
What have been some of the worst mishaps or, you know, accidents at
American nuclear power plants since Three Mile Island?
Mr. WALD: Several come to mind. There was an incident at the Davis
Bessie plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio. That design of reactor has a tendency
to get small water leaks out of the cooling water and the water has
boron in it, boric acid. And the reactor operators were told to check
that they didn't have these leaks and it wasn't causing any corrosion.
First Energy, the company that owned the reactor, said well, yes, weâll
check, but why don't you let us wait a few weeks (unintelligible) weâll
shut down anyway? And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in a moment I'm
sure they now regret, said well, okay, go ahead and wait. Well, when
they finally shut down, they discovered that a huge chunk of the vessel
head had rusted away and the only thing holding the pressure in the
reactor was a tiny strip of stainless steel liner that was bulging, and
that shook people up.
Other incidents, at the Salem nuclear generating station in Southern New
Jersey, they had an incident in â83 where there is an automatic system
thatâs supposed to shut the reactor down if it gets a signal from any
one of three dozen places. And it's a redundant system. There are two
breakers that should they get the signal, will cut power to the
electromagnets that allow the reactor to keep running. The
electromagnets hold the control rods out of the core, cut the power â
itâs supposed to be a very safe, passive design â cut the power, the
gravity pulls the rods down into the core and the reactor stops.
Well, both of these electric breakers failed simultaneously. The Nuclear
Regulatory Commission had calculated this would happen been six times in
100,000 years. If you're good at math, that's once every 17,000 years,
give or take. And it happened twice - because they didn't notice it the
first time - it happened twice in a three day period.
What this tells you is there are sometimes connections between systems
you think are independent - they thought these two breakers were
independent but they weren't â and there you can get problems we haven't
Thereâve been a few other - there's a reactor in Florida right now that
shut down to replace some major components and when they opened up the
containment to get the new components in they discovered cracks in the
containment, rust and cracks, and that was a couple of years ago when
they were still trying to get it fixed.
These things sometimes work better than you think they're going to, more
often they don't work as well as you think they're going to, and we have
not yet exhausted all the theoretical possibilities of ways to go wrong.
Although as time goes by, as with airplanes, you learn from experience
and there are certain problems that you put to bed. You don't get a
We had a fire at the Browns Ferry One nuclear plant before Three Mile
Island in 1975, and believe it or not, we still have some unresolved
fire issues at American reactors. We have a system in these reactors
where if you get a major pipe break, the water collects in the basement
and you pump it back into the reactor vessel. You have very high
quality, high reliability pumps and valves to do that. But later
somebody decided, you know, if we really get a big pipe break is going
to scour the paint off the walls. It's going to take any debris that's
handy and that's going to go to the basement too, and that's going to
clog up the drains where the stuff collects and we won't be able to re-
Weâve been working on that problem for about a decade now and some
plants have made improvements but we have not yet finished with those
improvements. So there's a lot out there that could go wrong. Its
likelihood is not clear.
GROSS: How much of American electricity comes from nuclear power now?
Mr. WALD: It's about 20 percent. And although we haven't built any new
reactors in a long time, the reactors we've got run more hours of the
year and some of them have been tweaked to get higher output. So even
though national electric demand has grown and the reactor fleet has not
grown - in fact, it's shrunk a little - we still have about a 20 percent
share from nuclear.
GROSS: Where does nuclear power fit in President Obama's energy policy?
And did the Fukushima disaster affect that policy, judging from his
Mr. WALD: It did not. The administration officials have been careful to
say we want to learn all the lessons we can from this. We're not going
to be cavalier about this. And just because we're not particularly
worried about tsunami doesn't mean there aren't things we can learn here
to reduce our chance of accident.
But the administration has been pretty firm, partly led by Steven Chu,
the Secretary of Energy, who has a Nobel Prize in physics, that we need
to keep the nuclear option open. We need to understand how to build
modern plants, in addition to operating those we designed and built in
the '70s. We have an export business in nuclear technology. And the time
may come when we want to build a lot more. We need to give the industry
a little help to build a few now just to keep the technology alive. That
loosely is - was and is the Obama administration, and the Bush
administration before, it's policy.
GROSS: So, you know, where are we with energy now? You know, you look
around and every form of energy seems to have serious consequences. Oil,
first of all, it - you know, it produces greenhouse gases when burned.
Also it makes us beholden to foreign countries, often countries that do
not have our best interests at heart.
Mr. WALD: Not to mention all the guys we killed on the Deepwater
GROSS: Yes. Right.
Mr. WALD: ...and all the beaches we fouled. We killed, we had a coal
mining disaster in West Virginia last year. We had about 48 coalminers
killed in Pakistan a few days after the Fukushima Dai-ichi crash â
meltdown. And we had...
GROSS: So you're talking about coal now too in addition to oil.
Mr. WALD: Right. Last year there were six workers killed at a
hydroelectric plant in Colorado. Every form of energy extraction and
conversion has two kinds of risks, risks to the environment and risks to
workers, and sometimes risks to the public.
Nuclear power in the United States may in fact have killed people, but
not at the reactors. We've done some nasty things to miners in the
uranium business. The real question isn't is their risk. The real
question is how much good does electricity do you, what risk do you
incur creating it, transmitting it, etcetera, and where does the balance
lie? You and I drink water. Water is processed in this country with
electricity. Sewage is processed with electricity. I have a refrigerator
that runs on electricity, and the supermarket down the street gets food
to me through electric refrigeration. I've had X-rays. I've had a
dentist drill my teeth, all with electricity. All of this has some cost.
GROSS: Well, Matthew Wald, I want to thank you very much for talking
Mr. WALD: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Matthew Wald is a reporter for the New York Times who covers
nuclear power. You'll find links to his recent articles on our website,
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'The Killing': 'Twin Peaks' Meets '24' On AMC
TERRY GROSS, host:
This Sunday the AMC cable network presents its new TV series, a crime
drama called "The Killing." It's based on a 2007 miniseries from Denmark
and tells the story of the murder of a young girl from three alternating
perspectives - the family of the victim, the police investigating the
crime, and a local politician who's a person of interest in the
Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI: In literature, and in TV and movies, some of the
world's best-known recent crime series have come from Scandinavian
countries. Sweden has given us mopey police inspector Kurt Wallander,
and even more famously, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo."
There's even a name for this genre now - critics are calling it Nordic
noir - and this weekend, AMC throws its hat into this global ring of
gloom, doom and depressing murder mysteries by presenting "The Killing,"
a new adaptation of a four-year-old miniseries hit from Denmark.
This Americanized version is set in Seattle, and the cloud cover and
oppressive rainfall count as important minor characters. And while the
inspiration for this series comes from Denmark, the unusual structure
and tone of "The Killing" can be traced to a few groundbreaking American
TV series: "24," "Murder One," "The X-Files," "Twin Peaks." And if you
can't imagine what those four shows could possibly have in common -
well, here we go.
"Murder One" was Steven Bochco's landmark 1995 TV series - more of a
miniseries, really - which took an entire season to solve a single
murder and take that case to trial. That's the patient approach that
"The Killing" takes as well. The entire season is about a single murder
- of a high school girl - and how two cops work to solve it.
Like "24," each episode dramatizes a finite period in the story. With
"24" it was real time: Each hour of TV represented an hour in Jack
Bauer's very bad 24-hour day. But in "The Killing," things are a bit
more condensed. Each hour of TV time represents a day in the
Like "Twin Peaks," it's a show set in the Pacific Northwest which begins
with the murder of a local girl and dwells on her parents' painful,
shocked grief. The music, the imagery - even some of the plot details -
will remind you of that famous series, but there's none of David Lynch's
metaphysical whimsy to lighten things. This series is dark, dark, dark -
just like the Seattle sky. Actually, it's the Vancouver sky standing in
for Seattle, but you get the idea.
Finally, like "The X-Files," "The Killing" pairs two very dissimilar
investigators who come with different styles and perspectives. Sarah
Linden, played by Mireille Enos, is the lead detective on the case, even
though it's supposed to be her last day on the force before taking a
leave to get married. Stephen Holder, played by Swedish actor Joel
Kinnaman, is supposed to be her replacement - but as they work together,
their styles often clash.
Here they are meeting with the parents of the slain girl. The parents
are played by Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton. Sarah, the female
detective, speaks first. But when her new colleague eventually chimes
in, all she does is shoot him an annoyed stare.
(Soundbite of TV show, "The Killing")
Ms. MIREILLE ENOS (Actor): (as Sarah Linden) I appreciate you keeping
this just to family for now. The first 48 hours are the most important.
Ms. MICHELLE FORBES (Actor): (as Mitch Larsen) (Unintelligible) Rosie
Ms. ENOS: (as Sarah Linden) Soon. We'll have a unit over at your house
later to go to your daughter's room.
Mr. JOEL KINNAMAN (Actor): (as Stephen Holder) I just want to know if
she was into politics.
Ms. ENOS: (as Sarah Linden) We're looking at every angle. You should get
home. Get some rest. I'm sorry for your loss, Mrs. Larsen, Mr. Larsen.
Mr. BRENT SEXTON (Actor): (Stan Larsen) Will you find who did this?
Ms. ENOS: (as Sarah Linden) We'll do our best.
Mr. SEXTON: (Stan Larsen) Will you find who did this?
Mr. KINNAMAN: (as Stephen Holder) Yeah.
BIANCULLI: "The Killing" is intentionally slow and doesn't provide any
of the usual staples of the genre as high-octane relief. No gun battles,
no car chases - just cops doing their duty, politicians looking for ways
to spin things to their advantage, and parents facing their worst fears.
There's one scene in which the parents are called in to identify the
body of their daughter, where their individual reactions are nonverbal,
unconnected and emotionally scalding. The husband and wife don't even
hold or look at each other. In that awful moment they're hit by their
own individual grief. It's astoundingly good acting - but, like so much
of "The Killing," it's tough to watch.
But it deserves to be seen - and the persistence of these detectives is
a little reminiscent of "Columbo," where their unassuming, unorthodox
approach ends up unearthing certain hidden clues, and at the same time
getting us to root for them strongly along the way.
"The Killing" is AMC's most depressing series yet - and this is from a
network that has given us apocalyptic zombies and a terminally ill
crystal meth manufacturer. But just as I came to love and recommend "The
Walking Dead" and "Breaking Bad," I'm doing it again with "The Killing."
Just don't tune in for a USA Network-type lighthearted romp, or you'll
be sorely disappointed.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com, and
he teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. "The
Killing" premieres Sunday on AMC.
You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.