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CNN Special Presents: Pandora's Promise

Aired November 7, 2013 - 23:00   ET


DALE BRYK, NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL: I was really disappointed to see almost no coverage of any interviews with experts about energy efficiency or renewable energy like solar and wind when these are the cleanest, fastest and the cheapest solutions to climate change.

And in this country the utilities have tripled investment in energy efficiency just in the last few years. And that's making all of our homes and shops and businesses get more energy services out of the power that we generate. And that's just scratching the surface.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: But the film clearly says that alternative solutions like solar, wind, is not a real energy solution. It's never going to be enough. And that's why oil companies invest in it and support it because they know it will never be a real solution.

BRYK: Yes. That's what the film says. But that's not what people who are expert in the areas of renewable energy say. Our own department of energy says renewable, wind and solar with energy efficiency and other resources, but renewable alone could be 80 percent of our energy needs by 2050.

JAMES HANSEN, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY EARTH INSTITUTE: You know, that's pretty silly. Do the math. The reality is that the renewable energies non-hydro renewables are less than two percent of global energy. And the growth in global energy use is two to three percent a year. So 20 to 30 years of subsidies to renewable energies are supplying only one year's growth. So we have to move. We need abundant, affordable, clean energy. And we shouldn't be cutting off any of those sources.

COOPER: Including nuclear.

HANSEN: Including nuclear. Nuclear should be one of the options. The people who favor nuclear don't say, no solar energy. My barn roof is covered with solar panels. We generate twice as much energy as we use. But the problem is the renewable advocates will first of all try to cut down nuclear so that you have no choice.

COOPER: There's no environmental group in the United States which supports nuclear energy.

ROBERT STONE, FILMMAKER, PANDORA'S PROMISE: No, the leadership of the environmental movement does not support nuclear energy.

COOPER: You used to be opposed. STONE: My first documentary was an anti-nuclear documentary. And my last documentary was a loving history of the environmental movement. So, I said to come out of that thing. But I've take this film all over this country to colleges and universities. I'm taking it around the world now. And honestly, Anderson, I've had nothing but support -- not nothing but support but overwhelming support for the proposition I put forth in the film from environmentalists, evern renewable energy advocates --.

COOPER: I want to bring in Michael Friedlander.

Michael you've run nuclear power plants. Do you think the nuclear power is the answer to the world's energy crisis?

MICHAEL FRIEDLANDER, FORMER NUCLEAR POWER PLANT OPERATOR: Well, it's certainly a very important component of a global energy portfolio. There's just no way of getting around that. But my undying support for nuclear power comes with a very, very cautious measure, and that is that's truly only in the hands of a responsible nuclear operator.

COOPER: Are there enough safety protocols in place?

BRYK: Well, that's one of many questions. And I just want to be clear, we're not saying take nuclear off the table because there's some religious opposition to it based on 70s hysteria that's not based on science. We're saying, internalize the pollution costs of all resources. So we absolutely have to have carbon pollution limits to solve global warming. That, I think we all agree about that. Then allow the resources to compete against each other. Let nuclear compete against renewables and efficiency on a level playing field. I hope that we could also agree on that. And then we'll see if nuclear actually has a role to play.

COOPER: What would put it on a level playing field? Is it level right now? No new nuclear power plant has been built in the United States in a long time. Is that playing level?

BRYK: Right. And that's not because environmentalists are opposing the construction of new nuclear powers, it's because investors won't invest in it because it's too expensive and so risky.

COOPER: You were making the film when Fukushima happened. I was over there. I think a lots of people expected you kind of abandoned to start your argument.

STONE: That's true.

COOPER: Was Fukushima not as bad as people made it out to be?

STONE: The think Fukushima is a terrible accident. There's no question about it. Although fortunately nobody has died, nobody has gotten sick, and according to the best science in the world health organization nobody ever will. But that said, a lot of people have lost their homes and everything. It's a terrible thing. But I think one has to look at it from the broader context. We've had nuclear power for 50 years. There are 440 reactors operating all over the world. During that 50-year time period we've had three major accidents, Chernobyl, Fukushima and three mile island. Only one of those accidents, Chernobyl, according to the best science from the world health organization, the United Nations, has caused any fatalities.

COOPER: The pilots who flew in to try to drop cement on the reactor died.

STONE: Exactly. And they're saying less than 60 people have died after 25 years, if they can trace back the immortality, this can be directly trace the radiation at least is that they can trace back of their mortality can be directly traced to the radiation releases at Chernobyl. So you compare that to fossil fuels which kill three million people every year from particular pollution and there's just no comparison.

HANSEN: We would never build a nuclear plant now with those technologies which had these accidents. Now, the technologies can be failed safe in the sense that if there's an anomaly like an earthquake it will shut down automatically.

COOPER: Can all these countries that would like to build nuclear power, like can they afford that sort of technology?

BRYK: Well, and that's a technology that exists because that is a technology that exists in a power point. That technology has been canceled by everyone who has done it.

HANSEN: That technology was ready to move toward commercialization in 1993.

COOPER: Michael, I want to get to you.

FRIEDLANDER: And Anderson, if I could make a comment. You know what, I hear these conversations all the time about the next generation nuclear power plants and they're inherently safe. The reality is this is not a technological concept. The issue is that the people who operate them, those are the people that you're putting the safety in the hands of. And it is not a technological issue.

COOPER: You're saying the danger is the operators.

FRIEDLANDER: Exactly. Certainly and no question about it, power plants today are safer than the very first power plants that were built. And the ones that are being built in the world today are clearly safer than the ones that were built 10, 20 years ago.


FRIEDLANDER: But I don't care how safe a technology you design in hands of somebody who is incompetent, you can generate just as much havoc as you can with an older generation power plant. So it is not a technological issue.

COOPER: We've got to take a quick break. James, we'll have your comments when we come back. Also we look out more on the Fukushima questions for all the potential long-term benefits nuclear power can it be made safe day in and day out. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Welcome back.

We're talking about the promise and peril of nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, but also in the shadow of global warming. Neither risk is hypothetical as disasters at Japan, in Chernobyl and Three Mile Island show. The question is not can nuclear power plants be safe from these accidents but are they safe in normal operation.

In the clip from Pandora's Promise, a pro nuclear environmentalists learn about the radiation we're all exposed to just by living on the surface of the earth.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't know such a thing as natural radiation -- I assumed that radiation was something which humans had artificially introduced into the environment which was doing us harm. As background radioactivity affecting all of us all the time, which is many, many times more powerful than artificial radioactivity in terms of how we're affected.


Back with the panel. Filmmaker Robert Stone, dale brick of the natural resources defense council, Jim Hansen of Columbia university's earth institute and nuclear eng near Michael Friedlander.

Jim, right before the break Michael said nuclear power plants are only as safe as the people operating them.

HANSEN: Yes. That's right. So, what we should do first is look at the record. Solar energy, for example, the record is two deaths per terawatt hour of electricity generated. Nuclear power is 0.5 deaths per terawatt hour. So, you know, people fall off the roofs while they're installing solar panels. But I'm not against solar panels. I'm just pointing out that the nuclear is actually much safer. It has a very good safety record. And that's with old technology.

COOPER: Dale, do you buy that?

BRYK: Yes. I just don't think it's credible to say that the radiation risk from Fukushima and Chernobyl and for anybody who reads the newspaper and pays attention to these issues is diminimize (ph) when we know exposure increases means cancer rates increase. And even if you can't point to an individual person and say that person has cancer because of Chernobyl, we know that there are more cancers out there.

COOPER: But you believe that nuclear power is less safe than -- that more people have died from that? BRYK: Than energy efficiency or renewable, absolutely. I don't think it's even credible to say such a thing. And we can have difference of opinion.

COOPER: I mean, can you point to how many people have died from -- I mean, three mile island nobody died. Emergency procedures there worked, correct?


COOPER: I remember being a kid during that time and it was very scary but you're saying it worked.

STONE: At Chernobyl, yes, nobody died -- there's a minor release at three mile island. So again, you got 20 percent of American electricity comes from nuclear power. Out of a single death has occurred from commercial nuclear power in the entire 50-year history.

COOPER: Aren't these plants very expensive to build?

STONE: Well, they are expensive to build but they operate for a long time. Right now electricity generated by nuclear plants is about the cheapest electricity in the country. And only recently has natural gas tipped that scale because they last so long. The costs are all paid off. The operating costs are very small, fuel costs are very small.

BRYK: Well, just this year, utilities have closed five nuclear power plants.

STONE: Because of natural gas.

BRYK: Existing nuclear plants because they can't compete in the marketplace.

HANSEN: Yes, but those plants that have been closed are very old power plants.

BRYK: All the nuclear power plants are very old power plants.

COOPER: In the film you're basically arguing that oil companies run commercials about alternative energies because they know these will never really take the place of oil.

STONE: Yes. It's not an existential threat to their business model. Absolutely.

COOPER: But nuclear is?

STONE: Nuclear would be, yes. I mean, look at France. France went from zero nuclear to 80 percent nuclear in 20 years. That's the kind of time frame that according to scientists like Dr. Hansen say that we're got to transition away from fossil fuels. There's no case of renewable energy or efficiency displacing fossil fuels anything like that. And as I said, 1/10th of one percent of American electricity is coming from solar. BRYK: That's not accurate. Energy efficiency has delivered more to meet our energy needs in that last 40 years than all other resourced combined.

STONE: Well, the world's energy is growing right now. The world demand for energy right now is growing equivalent of adding another Brazil to the planet every year. And at the rise of the developing world has thrown the fundamental assumption that environmentalists came up with about energy efficiency to the wind.

HANSEN: If we're going to bring the world out of poverty, the part in poverty now, we need clean affordable energy. Energy efficiency is not enough.

COOPER: We've got to take another quick break. A lot more to talk about.

Next nuclear and beyond, other alternatives to a power-hungry world.


COOPER: Welcome back. We're talking about "Pandora's Promise," the CNN film environmentalists who make the case for nuclear power. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The global south is very warm. They would like air conditioning. Up until now they've not been able to afford it but now they can. They're getting out of poverty. And they need grid electricity to run their air conditioners. Of course, environmentalists freak out at that point.

But on the other hand, if you could have vast quantities of really really clean energy in the developing world in the next decade or so, that is such an improved world it takes your breath away.


COOPER: "Pandora's Promise" argues this energy could come from nuclear. Question is, though, could it also or could it alternatively come from other sources as well. Solar, wind and so on.

Back with our panel. I know you want to respond to something Jim had just said.

HANSEN: Yes. I think, you know, right now we've got two billion people in the world who have no electricity at all. I think we in the west is a moral imperative for us to lift -- allow the rest of the world to lift themselves out of poverty and they are doing. Right now, they are doing so by burning fossil fuels and that cannot continue. That globe that lights up at the end of the film, that's a globe that is going to light up right now with fossil fuels because we've thrown so much of our technological prowess into exacting more and more fossil fuels. We're not run the out of fossil fuels. So, we need an alternative to power that globe. And it's just a matter as Dr. Hansen said, you've got to do the math. We need a lot of wind, we could need solar, a lot of efficiency. If you do the math with the technologies we have available today, you just can't get anywhere close to de-carbonizing which is what we need to do, de-carbonizing electric grid without nuclear power. So we've got to make it better, safer, faster, cheaper. We've got to do all those things. The great news is we can and we've developed these technologies we need to bring them to market.

COOPER: You say that's not the math though that you see.

BRYK: Yes. No. If you want to get energy sources to the world's poor which we absolutely must do, I think we're all in agreement about that, you want the cleanest, cheapest, fastest way of getting those energy services to those communities. And right now, that is renewable and using energy efficiency.

COOPER: At the scale that's necessary as quickly as possible?

BRYK: Building a nuclear plant and transmission lines to remote villages is not a quick way to get energy services to villages. And I'm all for all the technology competing.

STONE: This is delusional. Are you saying you actually believe -- you actually believe that we are going to power an entire planet of nine billion people with wind and solar? You actually believe that?

BRYK: I'm saying they want the resources to compete against each other in the marketplace.

STONE: That's not the question. You actually believe that? Because if you don't believe that you've got to support nuclear.

BRYK: I think that renewable resources, wind and solar, have a lot more potential than nuclear because they are coming down in price.

COOPER: At the scale -- so, you're saying no new nuclear.

BRYK: The department of energy, this is not crazy, people. The (INAUDIBLE) announced analysis.

HANSEN: One thing she's saying is right what we need to do because for the climate problem we have to phase out fossil fuel emissions. That means we have to put a price on carbon that rises over time then we let these things compete.

But the problem is that the renewable advocates are cutting off nuclear at the beginning. And so it's just between renewables which are very expensive.

BRYK: But I'm actually not saying that. So, I think we're in agreement about that.

COOPER: But you're saying it's a level playing field. Is it a level playing field?

HANSEN: It's not a level playing field when the environmental organizations try to cut off nuclear without giving it a chance.

COOPER: The future of the world's energy needs. Can it be met without increasing nuclear power, Jim?

HANSEN: Well, we don't have any alternative now. Maybe something will show up. But the time is running out. And what we need, and to make the cost competitive is to have modular reactors, a given design which you then will produce many copies of. And it could be much cheaper than the current nuclear power plants which are usually one- of-a-kind.

BRYK: Well, and that's the promise that is keeping -- that the nuclear industry keeps making but has been making for 25 years. But I think we can agree that if we put a limit on carbon pollution, if I could just finish, if we could put a limit on carbon pollution and say, OK, we are reducing pollution like this. And I'm saying wind prices going down, solar prices going down, investment going up, because those solutions are succeeding in the marketplace and allow new nuclear technologies to come to the marketplace and say, I'm a cheaper solution. I'm a faster solution.

STONE: You'll support RND nuclear?

BRYK: I think RND money is better spent on emerging technologies that have market and regulatory barriers to overcome not a technology that's been getting intense government support.

COOPER: Michael Friedlander, without nuclear power where do you see the state of the environment in 20, 30, 40 years?

FRIEDLANDER: Well, I have to agree with all the science that's currently available today, which basically says that we're going to increasingly become a carbon-dependent globe, which ultimately results in rising sea levels and massive climate change. And so I think that unless we can turn the ship around and turn it around very quickly, it bodes for a very, very difficult future for our children and grandchildren.

COOPER: And so you're saying nuclear has a role in turning that around.

FRIEDLANDER: It absolutely has a role to play in that. And to dismiss the technology as it currently exists today and to throw it out the window is just completely irresponsible.

BRYK: Well, and I want to be clear. I am not saying that. I am not saying do not consider nuclear, do not allow nuclear to compete. I'm saying let nuclear compete, don't put your thumb on the scale and say we're only choosing nuclear and we're going to spend all of our money on very expensive nuclear and not spend the money on things that are -- we can do right now like renewables and efficiency.

COOPER: Jim, just to wrap this up, in terms of the clock ticking, what is the urgency here? What do people need to know?

BRYK: We're all in agreement on that.

HANSEN: That's the real problem. And that's what the public doesn't yet understand because the climate system responds slowly to what we're doing. It's only partly responded to the CO2 that's already up there. So we really need to phase out fossil fuel emissions rapidly over the next few decades. And that's -- we're doing exactly the opposite. The emissions are going up faster and faster. So we've got to turn that ship around and it's not going to be easy. So it is urgent.

BRYK: Absolutely.

COOPER: I appreciate all you taking part in this. Michael Friedlander as well.

That does it for this Special Report. My thanks to the panel. Thanks for watching. It's an issue that matters and debate with consequences. I hope you're part of it. See you on "360."

Right now the nuclear power debate continues on "CROSSFIRE."