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New Leader Of Congressional Task Force On San Onofre Safety Says Nuclear Power Risks Too Great

February 4, 2019 1:23 p.m.

GUEST: Greg Jaczko, former chairman, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; author, “Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator”

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Related Story: New Leader Of Congressional Task Force On San Onofre Safety Says Nuclear Power Risks Too Great


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

The push for more nuclear energy plants in the U.S. is coming from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. The Trump administration supports nuclear energy almost as much as coal and some climate activists promote nuclear power as a clean sustainable energy source. But the former head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission now says the risks involved are just too great. Greg yachts go. How did the NRC. During both the Fukushima nuclear accident and the initial set and no for a shutdown. He was a controversial figure at the NRC which he acknowledges in the title of his new book Confessions of a rogue nuclear regulator.

Greg let's go now heads a new San and no free decommissioning task force launched by Congressman Mike Levin. And he joins me now by Skype. And Greg welcome to the program. Well thank you. It's really a pleasure to be with you. You joined the NRC with a background as a physicist and an expert on nuclear power. So what was it that made you odd man out at the NRC.

Well I really came to the commission originally through my work on Capitol Hill working for a then congressman from Massachusetts who had had a long record of focusing on nuclear safety and really holding the NRC his feet to the fire and then and then I spent a number of years working for Nevada senator and helping him in his efforts to fight the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository. So most of my interactions with the industry from a policy perspective had really been focused on looking at the issues where there were concerns and problems. And beyond that I really didn't have strong connections to the industry itself.

So that that may be a little bit different from a lot of the other commissioners or certainly the chairmen who served at the agency.

Now you must at one time have believed in the future of nuclear power. What's your opinion about it now.

Today I look at it from a very pragmatic perspective and that is that the biggest challenge we face I think from an environmental perspective right now is really climate change. And so to solve that problem we need solutions that we can deploy cheaply that we can deploy rapidly and that are reliable. And I look at all the options that are out there and in my mind. Nuclear doesn't fit any of those metrics so I don't think nuclear is going to be the solution for climate change and that is really fundamentally the reason that people are still talking about nuclear today.

Because if you look at the U.S. industry plants are shutting down. We can't build new plants in this country. And the ones we are building really are costing tens of billions of dollars more than anticipated. So you know it really is a failing technology in this country and it's not a solution to climate change.

Now you know the response to critics of nuclear power is usually something like no one died at Three Mile Island that nuclear accident certainly no one died or even got injured from the tiny radiation released here in San Onofre. And now experts are saying it was the unnecessary evacuations around the Fukushima nuclear accident that led to deaths not the radiation leak. So could it be that people are more fearful of nuclear power than they should be.

Well there is a long well established scientific basis for the decisions that people make around radiation and all of the accidents that have happened have really demonstrated the accuracy of those assessments whether it's three mile island or noble or the Fukushima action or even what happened at San Onofre. And so I think what people need to understand is that nuclear power plants are capable of releasing radiation. They're capable of having accidents and those accidents can lead to impacts for the people around the plant. So you know whether it's evacuations whether it's you know permanent displacement from your home.

Those are the impacts and those are based on well-established scientific principles. Certainly there were things that happened at the Fukushima accident which you know really is the risk of any type of nuclear power plant operation. And then when you have to do evacuations because that's what's appropriate you have to do those evacuations correctly. And if you don't do appropriate evacuations then people can be harmed and I think you know saying that there were challenges with the evacuation doesn't mean that fundamentally people shouldn't be evacuated. That means that the evacuation should have been planned better and should have been done in a different way to ensure that the evacuations weren't causing these secondary consequences.

Now today a San Onofre is being decommissioned a really big question is whether storing spent nuclear fuel in dry casks so close to the coastline whether that's safe or not.

What's your opinion on that.

I think fundamentally that's not the best place to put that fuel. Obviously there's no permanent place to move the fuel right now and so it needs to stay somewhere for at this point for probably decades or a century or more. So what's important is to find a location that is removed from the coast where the fuel can be in a better condition and a better storage location than it is right now. And I simply think the choice that's been made is more about expediency and cost than it is about finding the optimal place to store that fuel.

So you're on Congressman Mike Levin's Task Force on San Onofre. What's the goal of that group.

Well it's really to take a look at this issue of nuclear waste storage and certainly the primarily from the perspective of making sure that the process that's happening with the fuel it's in and off Ray is fully protract protective of public health and safety and then long term taking a look at this issue because it affects communities all across the country and seeing if there's a way that we can add some meaningful contribution to the long term solutions about how we deal with with spent nuclear fuel. But one of the things that I talk about in my book is that this is such a forgotten issue when we talk about all of these issues about nuclear power and we are continuing to generate spent nuclear fuel in this country and we don't really have a solution for what to do with that waste.

So you know from the broader perspective of nuclear power this is yet another reason to recognize if this is not a technology that I think should have a long a long role in dealing with climate change or really any other electricity needs that we have.

But we do now have spent nuclear fuel as you say other. Are there nuclear generators are producing it. We have some we need to store here from San Onofre. And you and your career have been opposed to permanent storage building a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain. So what do we do with it.

Well I think fundamentally you have to find a community that is willing to take the waste that meets whatever safety and environmental standards are appropriate. So far we haven't found that community. So in the short term or the medium term the fuel has to be in some type of monitored interim storage facility whether that's at a reactor site or whether it's in some consolidated area or another part of the country but whatever location you identify it has to meet and really satisfy very stringent environmental and safety safety requirements. And as I said I don't think the site at San Onofre right now meets those requirements and that's why I think you need to consider an alternative location and where that that fuel can be in a safer and more appropriate location.

I've been speaking with former NRC Chair Greg Yates co author of the new book Confessions of a rogue nuclear regulator. And Greg thank you very much for speaking with us. Well thank you it was my pleasure.