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Special Edition: Nuclear Power in America

Aired March 19, 2011 - 09:30   ET


CHRISTINE ROMANS, HOST: Japan grapples with a disaster that seems to grow worse by the day and Americans are asking questions. How can we help? Are we safe? And why is the world's quest for energy fraught with so much danger?

Hello, everyone, and welcome to a special edition of YOUR BOTTOM LINE.

We begin with nuclear power in this country and what Japan's disaster means for American nuclear energy supplies. Our Jim Acosta is in Washington.

Jim, give us a break down. How many nuclear plants are in operation, right now, in this country and how many are proposed?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right now, Christine, there are 104 nuclear power reactors across the country. The NRC has a map that you can go to their Web site and take a look at it. We can actually show it to you, right now, that shows where they're located. They're spread all over the country.

The NRC currently is looking at 20 new reactors that would be spread basically over the Eastern part of the country -- 15 of these 19 reactors that they're talking about are going to be located at existing sites where reactors are already located, four would go into communities where they don't have nuclear power plants, currently.

And if you look at that second NRC map, you'll notice there aren't any new reactors being planned for California because of the earthquake worries, there. And, in fact, the state's two senators there, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, have called for safety reviews because of those earthquake worries. One of those reactors, as we reported earlier this week, is only a half mile from a previously undiscovered fault that was located in 2008, so there are fresh worries out there that these plants are not safe.

ROMANS: Absolutely. William Tucker is the author of "Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Energy Odyssey."

Bill, we haven't built a new reactor in this country in 30 years. This disaster doesn't get us any closer to building a new reactor. There's an awful lot of dots on that map that we've been talking about, but some handwringing about whether this nuclear renaissance in the United States and in the world might slow down.

What do you think?

WILLIAM TUCKER, AUTHOR: Well, I think it's going to be difficult and I think we should take a look at what the implications of this accident have been. But one of the interesting aspects is that the problem they had with delivering cooling water because of the electrical power, because of the loss of electrical power, the newer reactors have actually been designed to overcome that design flaw because they have natural cooling, convection cooling that doesn't require electricity. This is one of the things they've been advertising about them, in fact. So I think, nuclear is an evolving technology and I think that most of our fleet is now 30 to 40 years old, so I think as we move forward, there are going to be advantages coming with new development.

ROMANS: Tyson Slocum is the director of Public Citizens Energy Program.

Tyson, you know, there's this whole, not in my backyard, NIMBY, it was something from the '70s, from the '80s about nuclear power, becomes a bigger issue when you're talking about nuclear power plants, you say, because look, you have disasters in coal mines. But that affects just that area. You have the Gulf, I mean, that was a disaster, the BP explosion, the Gulf, and clearly it hurt the whole Gulf line, but a nuclear power disaster is different, you say.

TYSON SLOCUM, PUBLIC CITIZENS ENERGY PROGRAM: Right. I mean, that's one of the unique problems that exists with nuclear power is that they -- if you've got a catastrophic event at it, whether because of a natural disaster or because of a terrorist attack, you're not just dealing with a localized problem, you're dealing with a much larger or global problem.

And the problem that Public Citizen has with putting all of our chips with nuclear power is that it is so darn expensive. You know, these new plants cost at least $10 billion, and they can't be built unless taxpayers put up enormous subsidies and those subsidies that are directed to new nuclear power plants are crowding out subsidies available to competing technologies, like wind and solar and investments in energy efficiency that simply do not feature the kinds of massive risks that nuclear power does.

I mean, remember, the Japanese are probably the best prepared of any nation to deal with earthquakes, but yet they were not able to foresee the problems of the tsunami overcoming the sea wall. And that's one of the problems was that the best minds in the industry cannot account for all of the potential problem variables associated with natural disasters or terrorist strikes and that's really the Achilles heel of the nuclear power industry.

ROMANS: You talked about putting all of our chips in nuclear, and the president has said this is part of our future, but we're not saying we're putting all of our chips in nuclear. He's talking about everything being on the table. Listen to what the president has said about where nuclear fits into America's energy strategy.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Some folks want wind and solar, others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all.


ROMANS: Jim, you've been reporting this week about this road map for America's energy future. How politically does this play out? You talked to one house Republican about this. How does this -- how do party lines figure in here?

ACOSTA: Well, obviously this could not have come at a worse time for proponents of nuclear energy in this country and in fact, one House Republican I spoke to earlier this week, Devon Nunes, Republican from California, he is proposing a road map for America's energy future, as he calls it. And this is not just some legislation coming from one congressman that may never get acted on, it has some 50 plus sponsors of this legislation, not to mention the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Paul Ryan, so it's got a lot of backing. It calls for 200 new nuclear power plants across the country. And I asked him, earlier this week, if he's still comfortable with that number.


ACOSTA: Two hundred nuclear power plants, that's going to sound like a lot to a lot of Americans who may not be aware of this plan. Are you comfortable with that number -- 200?

REP. DEVON NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: If we want to compete long- term with China, this is where China is headed. This is where France is in terms of the base load of their electricity coming from nuclear power.


ACOSTA: And that's what the proponents say is that China's already doing this, India's already doing this. Heck, France is well ahead of us in this endeavor and so, you know, we can't drill our way out of this mess is what the proponents of nuclear power say about all of this. But having said that, they're going to have a lot of, you know, a lot of convincing to do after this accident. No question about it, Christine.

ROMANS: Tyson Slocum, from Public Citizen, thank you so much. William Tucker, the buck is called "Terrestrial Energy," ad our very own Jim Acosta, thanks, gentlemen, for illuminating this discussion. I'm sure we're going to be hearing a lot more about it. Have a great weekend, guys.

The Debate over nuclear energy isn't just political or academic, your house could very well be powered by nuclear. In just a bit, we're going to take look at what powers your house and your family every single day.

But now, let's talk about radiation. The threat of radiation exposure in Japan causing concern right here in the U.S. you might not know it, but you're actually exposed to some sort of radiation every single day. It's in the background, what we live with. And our bodies have learned to sort of cope with it.

Our Deb Feyerick is here to tell us how much we're getting and how much is too much -- Deb.

DEB FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, when people think about radiation, they're thinking about those horrible pictures of Hiroshima, that little girl running through the street. But in fact, radiation is all around us, it's everywhere. We're exposed to very low doses every day. It's in the air, in rocks, soil, cigarettes, secondhand smoke, TV sets, and of course, those x-rays you get when you go to the dentist or when you're going to the doctor.

Now, even when you fly, you're exposed. Consider a flight from New York to Los Angeles, well, that amount is about half what you would get with a normal chest x-ray. And still, it is very small. The body, Christine, has actually learned to absorb, process and effectively neutralize all this background radiation that we take in every single day. The amount of radiation that you and I absorb, every year, registers at an average level, you see it right there, at 6.2, what's called millisieverts, that's the amount and the kind of radiation we're absorbing. Half of that actually comes from the x- rays that we get. The fewer x-rays, the lower your level, of course.

Nuclear plant workers, they're allowed a maximum exposure of 50 millisieverts. That's considered safe. Readings at the Fukushima facility in Japan were registering at 400. Now, the body would absorb that amount in just 2-1/2 hours, and that clearly could be deadly.


DR JAMES THRALL, AMERICAN COLLEGE OF RADIOLOGY: This is not like resting on the sidelines of a football game. Once you've had that amount of radiation and you've reached the limit, it's a cumulative effect. So just imagine you were in the sun and you realized you had a horrible sunburn, so you came into the shade. Well, you would be very foolish to go right back out into the sun.


FEYERICK: Now, chances of any dangerous levels of radiation coming to the U.S. is very, very slim. Even if we do get some radiation coming over in this plume, it's going to be no more than the background that we're getting right now. For those in Japan, the lasting danger isn't the air, it's the nuclear fallout that's going to hit the ground.

At Chernobyl, people got sick because radioactive particles got into the food chain. Cows consumed contaminated grass and water, and then thousands of children drank the milk from those cows and they came down with thyroid cancer. That's all going to be part of the massive cleanup.

Here's something else to keep in mind in terms of overall exposure. Explosions at nuclear facilities are not atomic explosions. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

THRALL: Nuclear reactors are not designed so that they can even explode the way a bomb does. They are deliberately built with a lower level of radioactive materials, and it could never reach a critical mass and explode the way an atomic bomb does.


FEYERICK: And that, unfortunately, is what people think of when they think of radiation. But, the area around the plant right now in Japan, that area is a hot zone. It is going to take years, as many as five to 10, and that's the best-case scenario to clean up the radioactive isotopes in the soil if there is a lot of radioactive cesium, cleaning up and rehabilitating and restoring that area, that's going to take even longer. So, we're looking at the tragedy now. It's just part of an overall much larger cleanup, that's going to take generations.

ROMANS: It's literally like radioactive fire fighting, right now. Just trying to put the fire out before you can figure out what kind of damage is there and where you go from here.

FEYERICK: Exactly.

ROMANS: And developments changing every day. All right Deb Feyerick, thanks, Deb.

This nuclear energy may be closer than you think. You're looking at a map with states with nuclear power plants. More than half of the Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear plant. Does nuclear power your family and how much?


ROMANS: We flip a switch, the lights come on. We turn on the shower, we've got hot water. But take a look at this, 20 percent -- 20 percent of our electricity comes from nuclear energy in this country, nearly a quarter from natural gas. Almost half of our power still comes from coal, barely double digits from renewables. These renewables are green and while they're sometimes more expensive, they're almost always better for the environment and your community. Howard Gould is an advisor at Equator Environmental.

Howard, you know, gosh, you talk about I want to get a Prius, I think maybe I want to lower my carbon footprint, but then you do three loads of laundry every day in your natural gas dryer. I mean, it's very difficult to get your family off the grid, so to speak. And this whole event in Japan kind of just reminds us that we are in a never ending quest for energy and lots of different kinds of energy sources.

HOWARD GOULD, EQUATOR ENVIRONMENTAL: Well, I mean, the demand for energy is growing and growing rapidly. It's not just here in this country, but it's growing across the world. So the idea is that how are we going to meet these new energy demands and what kind of energy is that going to be? Is it going to be clean energy or are we going to revert back to what we know? You know, that remains to be seen.

ROMANS: But is nuclear a clean energy?

GOULD: Well, nuclear is a very clean energy until it's not a very clean energy. You know, the emissions that come off are negligible, but the problem is what do you do with the spent rods? What do you do with this nuclear waste? And we're finding out that it's a huge problem.

But then you've got natural gas. Natural gas is not nearly as clean, but it's cleaner than coal. So, it's kind of, where we going to end up with this? And you have things like solar and wind, which are very, very clean, but you have intermittency with them, sometimes the wind blows, sometimes it doesn't. sometimes the sun's shining, sometimes it's not. So --

ROMANS: Those two alone could power the America economy?

GOULD: No. No. No, not possible. But I mean, you could look at potentially getting up to 20 to 25 percent off of wind and solar.

ROMANS: So if I'm at home and I want to see what powers my family or I want to know how green my energy is, what do I do?

GOULD: Well, you probably -- the best thing to do is probably go to the EPA Web site. You can put in your zip code there and it'll tell you what kind of energy you're using. And then what you should probably do is contact your energy provider and say most of them now have the way for you to specify, hey, I want to opt in for more clean energy, which is something that people should be doing.

ROMANS: What can people do to reduce their impact even if they can't convert to green energy power in their home? What can you do?

GOULD: Well, you can do anything as simple as changing light bulbs. You know, I know people have been talking about this for years and years and years, but it actually does make a difference, because, you know, you look incandescent bulb. The incandescent bulb really hasn't changed in over 100 years. But now we're seeing compact fluorescents, which there are some mercury issues with that, but the new thing is an LED bulb, which an LED bulb is significantly more expensive, but it lasts about 10 times longer. So, over the lifetime of it, you're coming out on a cheaper basis.

But you can also look at getting -- your house, getting an energy audit done on your house. You know, I just bought a house four years ago and it was a brand new house and I kind of figured that it was --

ROMANS: And it wasn't, was it?

GOULD: It was not. I mean, it was leaking like a sieve and because a lot of these houses are built for where are they, what do they look like, not for efficiency. But that's all going to start changing.

ROMANS: Howard Gould. Thanks, Howard. Calculating the human suffering and economic damage of the Japanese quake is almost impossible so soon, but the disaster will almost certainly top the record $125 billion losses from hurricane Katrina. The charitable donations, though, just aren't pouring in. We'll tell you why and, of course, how you can help.


ROMANS: The devastating images of heartbreaking stories from survivors of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan have spurred many to give, but not nearly as many and not nearly as much as you might think. The world is watching media coverage closely and it's images like these that inspire generosity.


STACY PALMER, THE CHRONICLE OF PHILANTHROPY: Japan is a very wealthy country, very well prepared to handle crises like this. So people aren't responding quite as generously because the need isn't there yet, but it may well be and we may be asked to give a lot.


ROMANS: Fund-raising will really kick into high gear when it becomes clear what the tangible needs are and when non-profits begin issuing mass appeals. So where and how should you donate? Ken Berger is the president and CEO of Charity Navigator.

Now, your rule of thumb is never donate to brand new charities, newly formed charities. They just don't have the experience and the infrastructure and the pipeline to get money and help where it's needed. Is that why?

KEN BERGER, CHARITY NAVIGATOR: That's certainly is a big factor and then of course the other factor is you can have a scam organization, because scammers know that this is the time where a lot of money is going to be donated, so a fast way for them to intervene for pulling on people's heartstrings.

ROMANS: We saw this in Haiti. We saw this, a lot of text messaging was a way that people were giving donations and we know that there were scams that way, as well. we have to be very careful.

BERGER: Every single opportunity that there is for a scam, they'll find a way. And so, with the new technologies of text messaging, they certainly have gotten in there.

ROMANS: But there are plenty of legitimate charities that are using text messaging as a way to donate. Very easy, it's also very instantaneous. Right when you see that story on TV or you read it in the newspaper, you can give money. Is that a good idea?

BERGER: Well, it's a powerful tool. We've never seen so much giving through text messaging before. And it comes to it being a good idea, you just need to know that it may take as much as 90 days for the charity to actually see that money. ROMANS: Why is that?

BERGER: Because it's basically a pledge that you're giving and so the phone company or your text messaging company will put it on your bill and they will not release the money until they send you the bill, you pay the bill and then they process the money.

ROMANS: What charities really need most is unrestricted money, money that can be used for whatever they think they need to give it for. But people like to give knowing exactly where their money is going. What should -- people should just give money when they've figured out what the charity is, is that right?

BERGER: Yes, that's really important. We see people who give supplies at times, which is a beautiful thing, it's very heartfelt, but in fact, there's a good chance that the stuff will get thrown away because the distribution channels just aren't there and unless you have a link to the charity on the ground, there's a very good chance it's going to get wasted.

ROMANS: Ken Berger, thank you so much. The CEO of Charity Navigator, again, really, thanks for your perspective.

BERGER: Pleasure.

ROMANS: And to find out more about the ongoing efforts in Japan and how you can make a difference, you can also log on, right now, to our "Impact Your World" page at

It doesn't matter where you live, you need to have a family emergency plan and it goes beyond simply an emergency contact. Everything you need to keep your family safe. That's next.


ROMANS: If you've been watching CNN all week, you probably heard this: Japan is the most prepared nation in the world for an earthquake on a tsunami disaster, but would you be prepared if there was a disaster in your area? Disasters, natural or otherwise, strike quickly without warning by definition. Having a plan for your family, though, is critical.

Rick Bissell joins me now and he is with the American Red Cross.

You know, in some cases, no amount of preparation for some disasters, no question. I mean, you could never have foreseen what is happening in Japan, a triple disaster, first an earthquake, then a tsunami and now a nuclear disaster which adds a completely different level of uncertainty and chaos on to the scene. But what are the first steps for people to create their own disaster plan so that if something, whatever it may be, befalls them, they know where to meet or where to go next.

RICK BISSELL, AMERICAN RED CROSS: First of all, you have to realize that you don't have to go at it alone. There are assistances out there, from various different sources. The Red Cross, in fact, if you up go online, has a variety of different Web sites where you can choose the kind of hazards that you might be exposed to, and then the online service will help actually guide you through the planning that you have to do, what kinds of supplies you might need, where you might get them and then what alternatives are available to you.

ROMANS: Separation is the problem we're seeing in Japan right now, getting in touch is often the hardest part of a disaster situation. We've seen it in this country after Katrina, other hurricanes, we've seen it as well after September 11, trying to get information and track people down. What do you recommend on that front?

BISSELL: Well, there are two things: One, which is universal, and we do that in my family, and that is we have selected somebody who lives out of our area, but who is a relative that everybody knows, in this case, it's my parents or my kids' grandparents and their phone number then is our universal contact number. So, if we get separated and we have access to phones we can call in our status to my parents and the kids know to do that and we can reunite that way.

ROMANS: But as far as, say your home or your office is concerned, you also need to have a plan that way, an escape route and to practice it regularly.

BISSELL: Absolutely right. And it's real important to practice them. For example, in my house, our bedrooms are on the second floor and so we have an escape ladder, but it wasn't until I put the escape ladder out the window trying to practice the plan that I discovered that the escape ladder's too short. And so, without having practiced that, the plan may have left us in trouble.

ROMANS: All right, Rick Bissell, American Red Cross, thank you so much.

And thank you so much for joining us, this morning.

We want to know what you think about the program and what's important to your family. Send us an email to or send me a comment on Facebook and Twitter @ChristineRomans.