Atomic Energy Renaissance 'The American Public Is Ready for Nuclear'

David Crane is CEO of NRG Energy, Inc, based in New Jersey. His company is planning to build two new nuclear reactors in Texas, the first such project in almost 30 years in the US. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke to him about the worldwide nuclear renaissance.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Republican presidential candidate John McCain has proposed building 45 new nuclear reactors by 2030 with a longer term goal of 55 more. His Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, is also in favor of more atomic energy. Is the US experiencing a nuclear power renaissance?

The United States isn't the only place where nuclear power is being heavily discussed. Many in Germany -- here, the nuclear power plant in Hameln -- would like to see the country take a new look at the technology.

The United States isn't the only place where nuclear power is being heavily discussed. Many in Germany -- here, the nuclear power plant in Hameln -- would like to see the country take a new look at the technology.

Foto: Getty Images

David Crane: It's still in the early stages. Clearly, the defining incident when it comes to the acceptance of nuclear energy in Europe was Chernobyl in 1986. But in this country, it was Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which was seven years earlier than Chernobyl and a much less serious incident. You basically have to be 45 or 50 years old in the US to remember Three Mile Island.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mean to say that people are beginning to forget about the dangers of nuclear power?

Crane: There is a perception that the American public is ready for nuclear. It's a combination of things, and one of them is generational change. The overriding concern in this country, just like in Europe, is global warming. The recognition by most pragmatic people is that nuclear is the only advanced technology that exists to replace coal-fired power plants on a significant scale. This has jump-started the renaissance.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Couldn't one achieve just as much by conserving energy and improving the efficiency of conventional power plants as well as by improving the efficiency of automobiles and buildings? There seems to be quite a bit of potential for that kind of thing in the US.

Crane: That's what I call the "Gore Approach." It's based on self-denial: Let's all go back to living without air conditioning and to drying our clothes on the clothes line. There's another option, though: the "Schwarzenegger Approach." It's the American Dream, but it's the carbon-free American Dream.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you mean by that?

Crane: He's like, I want to drive my Hummer and fly my Gulfstream 4, I just don't want them to produce any greenhouse gas. That's a Republican philosophy of a technology-driven approach. I think it's very difficult to get the American people to engage in self-denial. It's just not the American way. The American way is based on consumption. You don't want to change the American way of life, you just want to show them a better way to get there, and nuclear power is a key part of that. The first breakthrough for nuclear power was the connection with global warming. The second breakthrough is happening right now.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How have things changed?

Crane: I'm talking about the fundamental connection between nuclear power and electric cars. Gas prices are at $4.30 per gallon, and there are all these people driving 80 miles a day to work and back at just 14 miles to the gallon. That is breaking the back of the American commuter. If we start now, the automobile industry can be retooling itself at the same time as new nuclear plants are being built so they converge at the same time. And then you have nuclear plants that are not only displacing coal plants and their carbon emissions, but suddenly all the electric cars start to displace the classical engine. By our calculations, we will be able to offer electricity for cars at the equivalent of 80 cents to $1 per gallon -- less than a quarter of what people are paying now.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What makes you so sure that you are right? What you are talking about is still a long way off. It could very well be that, by then, cars will be powered by something else entirely.

Crane: Even if it's hydrogen or something else, electricity will be needed to produce it. We are really in a unique situation. The American electricity industry is the single biggest part of the problem; we release 37 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the US. But we are a much bigger part of the solution. If we, the power industry, can get our act together and can start producing economic power on a tremendous scale, not only do we solve our own carbon emission problem, but we can then solve the problem of the transport industry and industry in general. We can just electrify all these things. I met a guy who runs a train company. He told me he wants to electrify his line; until now he has run his freight trains on diesel. I said, wouldn't that be stunningly expensive? He said, yeah, I need $15 billion. But, he said, in 2005, my diesel bill was $1 billion for the whole year. Now its $1 billion every two months!

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What should the energy mix of the future look like?

Crane: Obviously, we Americans are the most wasteful people on Earth. Right now, coal produces 50 percent of our power and nuclear 20 percent in the US. It would be nice over time -- by 2050, the year most global warming legislation is aimed at -- to have these percentages reversed. Right now, the US consumes 4.5 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity. Maybe you can get that down to 4 trillion, but that would demand a huge push towards conservation, which will be very difficult. If you turn all 240 million cars and light trucks in the US to electric-powered vehicles while boosting the share of nuclear power, the amount of carbon emissions that would be saved overall would be enormous.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Imagining for a moment that so many new nuclear reactors do go on line, what is to be done with all of the radioactive waste? Even after years of debate on the issue, there is still no solution regarding final disposal.

Crane: A lot of people talk about a final solution, and we do need one. But this solution of on-site waste storage is deemed to be safe for a long time. Global warming is an immediate issue that nuclear energy can help solve. We should solve this issue now and solve the nuclear waste issue over the next 200 years.

Excerpts of an interview conducted by Frank Hornig

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