The public face of nuclear power in the U.S.

Retired Navy Adm. Frank Bowman says that in an age of climate change, nuclear power deserves far more consideration as a source of alternative energy.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
11 min read
It's probably one of the toughest talking gigs in the country. As CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, retired Navy Adm. Frank Bowman serves as the public face for the U.S. nuclear industry.

Although nuclear power is gaining in popularity, it remains extremely controversial. To get the industry's view across, Bowman speaks regularly at governors' conferences and local public forums.

He's also well versed in the subject. He served as the director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program and was responsible for operation of more than 100 reactors controlled by the Navy. Currently, he also serves on the board of directors for Morgan Stanley Funds, on the BP America Advisory Council, on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Nuclear Engineering Visiting Committee and other organizations. In 2006, Bowman was made an Honorary Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

CNET News.com recently sat down with him to discuss nuclear energy's future.

Q: Can you give us a snapshot of the U.S. nuclear power industry?
Bowman: Sure. There are 104 nuclear reactor plants in this country on the commercial side--there are also 103 Navy nuclear power plants too, by the way. Of the 104 commercial plants, 69 of them are the so-called pressurized water reactor version and 35 are boiling water reactors. They're scattered around on 64 different sites, so many sites have two or three reactors.

What is driving the resurgence in interest in nuclear?
Bowman: It's is a confluence of factors. There are important leaders in the country who used to think that there was no room for nuclear who are now realizing that in this era of climate change, global warming and greenhouse gas concerns, nuclear does in fact deserve a seat at the table.

There is concern about the very high volatility of natural gas prices in this country, the recognition that nuclear is operating safely and productively, the fact that we are looking for energy security.

There are important leaders in the country who used to think that there was no room for nuclear who are now realizing that in this era of climate change, global warming and greenhouse gas concerns, nuclear does in fact deserve a seat at the table.

I won't use the word energy independence because I don't think the country will ever really get to energy independence, but secure is a different matter. The fuel necessary for nuclear generation comes either domestically or from friends like Canada, Australia--not exactly the same group of people that provide (fossil fuels).

This is not an all-in love affair. They all have, not all, but many have legitimate concerns. And it's my position that we (the nuclear power industry) owe it to these people who have devoted their entire careers to public service, or to ordinary citizens who are concerned about these issues, to talk to them factually, adult to adult, and not be arrogant about it.

Was attitude a problem in the past?
Bowman: I think to a certain extent. After Three Mile Island happened, there was a tendency to sort of want to dive into the fox holes. I think we are taking a more serious effort in addressing peoples' concerns.

Has the performance of nuclear plants improved? In the past, uptime and other factors were problems?
Bowman: Beginning about 15 years ago there was a major, major upswing in key performance indicators of safety and capacity factors. Capacity has to do with the total amount of electricity generated divided by the total amount of electricity that could be generated if the plant were online 24/7. That number went from like 75 percent 15 years ago to 90 percent today.

Also, we're very proud of the safety record, but at the same time we realize that we have to keep our eye on the ball and that complacency is a bad thing. As soon as we start being proud of ourselves, danger lurks around the next corner.

What are some of the safety precautions?
Bowman: We insist on the highest possible quality in all the components. We insist on the very best of people to hire and then we train them to the zenith. We test their qualifications periodically. We then have a very stringent and tough regulator in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that does day-to-day kinds of inspections and then full-blown inspections twice at each reactor.

The plant sites have at least two resident inspectors. Some have as many as four, but these resident inspectors can come in the plant anytime they want to. This regulatory agency, unlike other regulatory agencies in the other sectors in this country, has the authority to shut down operations, to fine the plants.

Layered on top of Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the industry-initiated group called the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. INPO inspects (a single plant) once every two years and when they finish a very detailed two-week inspection, the report goes not just to the plant operators, but to the chief executive officer of the organization and if there's a holding company involved, it goes all the way to the chairman of the holding company and then subsequently to the group of CEOs in INPO. They share data, they share lessons learned. It's a very open transparent situation even though there is some competition among some of these folks.

The idea then is that if there is one shaky member...
Bowman: An accident anywhere is an accident anywhere. That is sort of the mantra.

Let's look at cost for a moment. Some people claim that nuclear is the only form of energy that goes up, rather than down, over time.
Bowman: That's wrong. I'm not suggesting that nuclear is cheaper as time goes on, but neither are others. In fact, they're all on a very sharp up ramp because of shortages of commodities like concrete and steel. Human capital, too. I read recently about a coal plant where the cost escalated by a factor of two because of a queue for commodities.

The idea now is to complete the doggone design, lock it in concrete, standardize the design for that type of plant, and then go build it. Now you get on a learning curve so that by the time you are on the fourth or fifth type of plant, there are no more change orders.

Secondly, the cost of nuclear will come down because we're going to steal ideas from my nuclear neighbors in the Navy. We are now building submarines and aircraft carriers in the most modular fashion you can imagine to the point where submarines are done in hull segments. Workers can go into those hull rings and install the piping components and weld standing up in a straight position rather than upside down or hanging on monkey bars. That has saved us enormous amounts of money in the submarine business and we intend to employ that same kind of logic in building these new nuclear plants.

Assuming the new applications come in, when will we see the first new plants in this country?
Bowman: There are 17 companies that are supposed to have signaled intent to the NRC to file a Combined Construction and Operating License (COLR). We would expect a minimum of four of those applications this calendar year (one has been filed since the interview) and as many as seven. We would expect somewhere around eight next year.

The NRC has recently declared that they will allow themselves 60 days to accept the application. They want a 60-day review to make sure it's all there before the clock starts ticking. They have essentially declared that they will adjudicate in 36 months to 42 months. So, if you start in 2008 and add three years, 2011, for the COL license to be approved and then add four years for construction--I think it'll be little less--then you're up to 2015 or so, so I think we could be online with the first of these new plants in 2015, 2016.

An accident anywhere is an accident anywhere. That is sort of the mantra.

But you have to be careful because there's no question people are going to watch very closely how the first group goes. If they go well, it's going to be here come a whole bunch more. If they go poorly, people are going to pull their cards and hold them closer to their chests and hold back until the bugs are worked out of the system.

Do we have the expertise? In the 1960s and 1970s, there were certainly a lot of nuclear engineers, but fewer and fewer people have gone into it since then.
Bowman: Two years ago we recognized that there was a graying of our industry and we started doing some things to mitigate the possible fallout of not having sufficient manpower. For example, we formed a Center for Energy Workforce Development. It's a group of industry people across all energy sectors--oil and gas is involved, renewables are involved. We're trying to highlight to educators in this country that energy is a viable vocation for kids. Additionally, individual utilities have entered partnerships with community colleges in their areas. We're seeing dramatic increases in enrollment in nuclear engineering.

It's risen to the level of attention of the governors. A few weeks ago in Biloxi, Mississippi, I met with the Southern Governors' Association to talk about exactly this issue of workforce. They asked me, "What can we do for you? What are we missing? How can we help?" Well, some of the answers were easy. You encourage these partnerships. I'm talking about these community college utility partnerships where utilities pay certain expenses and the students come back and work.

One of the things I suggested was, all of us cringe when we hear about dropouts, we don't like that. So what are we doing to have dropouts drop back in? Maybe an idea would be to establish something like a co-op program that we use today in some colleges where you go to school for a semester and you work for a semester. Maybe that would appeal to some of these youngsters in high school who have dropped out. Another idea was, "why are we allowing able-bodied men and women of age 55 to retire? If they have the skills that we need, let's go talk to them about it and let's incentivize them."

How about disposal? I grew up in Nevada. I am familiar with the Yucca Mountain and, it kind of looks like it is stuck in neutral.
Bowman: Well it is, and we recognized that also a couple of years ago, and we began thinking, "Shouldn't we take Yucca Mountain and move it off the critical path. Is there another approach that we've been missing, because we have been so Yucca-centric?"

Congress asks frequently, "Why does France recycle their used nuclear fuel and reduce the volume of stuff that has to be buried?" The story is that France, U.K., Russia, and Japan use a process that we invented in this country called "PUREX," which stands for plutonium uranium extraction. We devised that method at the beginning of the Cold War as a means to build nuclear weapons. Gerry Ford came along and said, "We got enough plutonium, we got enough nuclear weapons, we'll stop doing this--and if we stop, maybe we can stop the rest of the world. It's the right thing to do." Jimmy Carter often gets blame or the credit for this, depending upon the camp you're in, but it was really Gerry Ford.

We haven't processed since then. But remember: this process by its very nature has plutonium coming out at one end of the pipeline. Well, that's a terrorist's dream. They have the technology, they just don't have the material. So we don't want to go that way, but that doesn't rule out the goodness of recycling. It rules out a method.

So somebody then said, "What if we come up with a laboratory scale way to reprocess partially used fuels and chemically bond that plutonium to the really nasty stuff that's in here--the long lived radio nuclei that are there forever and generate a lot of heat--and make it unappealing to the terrorists?" That is, it would kill them if they came out and tried to take it. If we could do that, that would be good in and of itself because that would give us access to all of this uranium we're not using, that in the old way we would just stick in the Yucca Mountain and leave there.

What if we go to the next step now and take that bound up plutonium and make fuel out of that? Now you reduce by orders of huge magnitudes the volume, the heat load and the radio toxicity of the stuff that has to go into an ultimate geological repository. The old way leaves 95 percent of the energy content in the fuel rods that would go into a Yucca Mountain.

How far along is this process?
Bowman: Some of it has been demonstrated. Not building the fuel but separating plutonium and chemically pinning it to other stuff--that has been done at the laboratory scale. The Department of Energy picked up this ball and started running with it and asked for communities to volunteer--unlike Nevada that didn't get a choice in that matter--to participate in developing this, which is a $30 billion R &D project. The used fuel would have to be positioned in these communities in the interim until the new process is ready to go.

Sixteen communities across this country raised their hands and showed interest. The DOE energy department picked 13 of them, and each got $1 million to develop a program to show how it makes sense there.

Do we still need a deep geological in-ground repository? Yes, because you can't make it go to zero. But we've moved the need for Yucca Mountain way the hell downstream if this is successful, and we've moved the volume requirements and the capacity requirements and the requirements of the earth to absorb this toxic waste.

How about proliferation?
Let me put my old Navy admiral hat back on again. I'm also interested in the global aspects of this. I'm not particularly happy that Iran is flirting around with developing nuclear weapons capability or some other country yet to be named. The Bush administration--good idea--has talked about guaranteeing fledging countries low enriched uranium so they won't be forced to develop an enrichment capability that could be turned into a bomb producing capability. If you can enrich to 3 percent, which is all a commercial plant requires, you can keep on going and enrich to 93 percent. Then you have bomb materials in the front end. If there's a global pool overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency, there's no incentive to develop enrichment on the front end.

Now, to prevent the countries from being extended to develop reprocessing on the back end, the rest of the agreement would be that these countries give us back the old fuel and we'll take it home and reprocess it by ourselves.

What's the reaction then overseas?
Bowman: Reasonably positive. The investment costs of getting nuclear started in a country that doesn't have it today are enormous, they're too big to swallow, they're overwhelming, so it's not even on the radar screen.