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March 3, 2011 - 5:45pm

Nuclear energy experts address public concerns in open forum

BY SUZANNE JACOBS

Nuclear energy experts met with the public for a town hall discussion on North Campus Saturday to address any concerns the community has about growing use of nuclear power.

The University hosted the public forum on nuclear energy as part of the American Nuclear Society Student Conference. ANS leaders said they organized the event because nuclear energy is becoming an increasingly viable option for sustainable energy and a potential boon for the job market, and they believe it is crucial for the public to understand the industry and put to rest any unjustified apprehensions.

With ANS President Thomas Sanders as moderator, the forum's panel included Cynthia Pederson, deputy regional administrator at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Jack Davis, chief nuclear officer at DTE, Harold McFarlane, deputy associate laboratory director for nuclear programs at Idaho National Laboratory and Steve Mladineo, senior program manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

A common theme throughout the forum was the issue of safety concerning nuclear energy.

One audience member asked the panel if it would be safer for Americans simply to shut down all nuclear power plants.

McFarlane said not using nuclear energy as a power source would be “untenable.” He said with the amount of energy consumed in this country, nuclear energy has become a necessity.

“The question will be should we in fact be building more nuclear plants that don’t emit and shutting down more of the coal fired plants that do emit,” McFarlane said.

Davis agreed that nuclear power is a growing industry and a necessary investment. He said with the restrictions on carbon emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered a 150-percent increase in the number of nuclear power plants in the nation.

With the panel in agreement that nuclear power has a place in the future of the country’s energy needs, the discussion turned to regulations that ensure that are operated safely.

Davis said the health and safety of the public is always DTE’s primary concern.

“We will shut the unit down if there’s any question of a problem that needs to be addressed,” Davis said.

According to Davis, a new licensing process for building and operating nuclear plants focuses on the plant’s environmental impact and safety. He said the process entails first obtaining a design certification and then acquiring licenses for construction, operation and an early site permit.

She said once a plant is up and running, the NRC ensures the safety of people living near the site by educating them on emergency preparation and establishing relationships with local officials.

“The industry has a responsibility to interact with local constituents,” Pederson said.

According to Pederson, the NRC has a graded scale for incidents that occur at nuclear plants. The lowest grade incident is classified as “not reportable” and the most serious incident is labeled as “general emergency.”

In the event of an emergency, Pederson said, the NRC requires that the plant first notify locals and contact the NRC to inform officials of the incident. If the situation is serious enough, Pederson said, the NRC has contacts in federal departments who can provide national resources and assistance.

The panelists also addressed concern over the storage of nuclear waste. McFarlane said three viably safe options for geological repository are salt domes, granite enclosures and rock enclosures like the United States's permanent storage site at Yucca Mountain.

Another topic addressed by the panel was the job opportunities the nuclear energy industry creates.

According to Davis, building a nuclear plant takes about five to six years and 2,500 workers. Once the plant is up and running, Davis said, thousands of job opportunities are available for a variety of people, including graduates of community colleges and graduates with advanced degrees.

Davis said there are currently 22 plant licenses under review, and if those are approved, 55,000 employees will be needed for construction of the new plants.

Sanders added that 30 percent of the nuclear energy work force will be retiring in about five years.

“If you’re looking for career choices, there’s a high demand,” he said.

Concerns of long-term uranium supply also surfaced at the forum, but the panel collectively agreed that there is no need to worry about running out of fuel.

McFarlane said when nuclear energy was a budding industry in the '40s and '50s, there was uncertainty regarding the uranium supply, but now it is clear that there is an abundance of fuel and that the amount increases every year.

“If you look at it as a commodity, if you want to go out and find some more, usually people are able to do that,” McFarlane said.

Mladineo, the chair of the Nonproliferation and Arms Control Division of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, said the Russians produced more highly-enriched uranium than they could possibly need, so the United States is using 600 metric tons of that uranium and blending it with other materials for use in nuclear reactors.

According to Mladineo, that blended fuel is responsible for about 10 percent of electricity production in the U.S., and though it will be gone soon, there is more available.

Mladineo said the U.S. and Russia also have an agreement that each will take 34 tons of plutonium left over from the Cold War and burn it for fuel.

Mladineo added that even more fuel will come from the treaty President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed on April 8 to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in both countries. According to Mladineo, the material from the discarded weapons will be used in power reactors.