As Nuclear Plants Age, No Easy Energy Solutions

Dec 27, 2011
Originally published on December 27, 2011 2:13 pm

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. No nuclear power plants have been built in this country since the accident at Three Mile Island more than 30 years ago. The old reactors continue to provide 20 percent of our electrical power, but many of them will start to come offline in the next 10 years or so.

Given the time it takes to construct any kind of power plant, decisions have to be made soon about how we replace one-fifth of our electrical power and add the additional capacity we're going to need. There are no easy answers or single solutions, and the issues are enormous: politics, economics, climate change, national security, the balance of trade, jobs.

So how do we replace all that electricity? Our phone number is 800-989-8255, Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a credibility test for Syria - excuse me, Jon Weber the new host of NPR's "Piano Jazz: Rising Stars" will join us. But first, NPR's Christopher Joyce joins us here in Studio 3A. Just - Chris, nice of you to be with us.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Thanks for inviting me, Neal.

CONAN: And just last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed a new reactor design. So will new nuclear plants replace the old ones?

JOYCE: Well, it's great to be invited to a talk that has no easy answers.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: And no simple solutions.

JOYCE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: You're welcome.

JOYCE: Thank you very much. The AP1000 plant that was approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it's built by Westinghouse, it's something of a white knight, if you will, because as you said, the nuclear industry has been feeble, if you will, for a long time and for very many reasons: financial reasons, for safety reasons, for public skepticism.

And the AP1000 has had a long history. It was initially approved, it's a smaller plant, and as they were building it, they just - they discovered during those years that oops, it's going to cost more per kilowatt hour than we thought. This isn't going to work.

They went back to the drawing boards. They made it bigger to get economies of scale, and they tried to make it safer and simpler, to make it cheaper. And so they came up with the AP1000. It's a big plant. It's over 1,000 megawatts, and the NRC now says we like the way it looks, we think it's safe.

There's still some hoops to jump through. They still need to get certification for construction, and then again NRC has to approve an operating license. Those probably shouldn't be difficult. So we might see new reactors by 2016, 2017.

CONAN: So this is a long process indeed. And how many?

JOYCE: There will be two in Georgia and two in South Carolina, at least that's what - they're undergoing - they're the farthest along in terms of licensing, and they have money. And money is a big question. It's one thing to have a design that people like, and there are good things about the design.

I mean the design is the so-called passive design. It's much safer in the sense that it doesn't have - it doesn't need all the electrical equipment to make it - to bring in coolant if there's a loss-of-coolant accident. A lot of so-called passive design, you use gravity, you use convection to bring cooling water in.

It's a standardized design, and so in the sense you don't have to build a different plant every time. All the nuclear plants I think this now were one-off, you know, and that just doesn't make financial sense. They've trying for years in the industry to do a standardized design and say look, get one that's good, it works well, standardize it, we can all build the same one, and it's cheaper that way.

So that's to its advantage. But there's still the financial world, which is very reluctant to invest in nuclear power, and that's been a big stumbling block.

CONAN: Because per kilowatt hour, it's still pretty expensive.

JOYCE: Yes, and, you know, it takes a long time. It takes a long time to build a coal plant, too, but a nuclear plant is - there's so much more to it, and it takes - the permit process is so long. You know, you go to a bank, and you say I need to borrow billions and billions of dollars, oh and by the way, I won't have any money to pay back the interest for another five or six years.

You know, you're just going to have to pay the interest for five or six years with no money coming in. Investors don't like that. It's risky. Then you have things like Fukushima. You know, you have an accident that comes along, changes the rules. And right now we're seeing, for example, the price of natural gas coming down.

And, you know, no nuclear - a nuclear power plant doesn't operate in a vacuum. It has to compete with other sources of energy like coal and natural gas.

CONAN: But then you talk about natural gas. Natural gas presents problems of its own. Yes, it turns out there's a lot of natural gas that we can now access through the fracking drilling techniques that have become so popular. They've also become pretty controversial.

JOYCE: They have, and these are new days for fracking. Fracking is not, you know, it's a new technology, much newer than nuclear, for example, and it's being used in places, well recently like in Pennsylvania, in new geological formations where they're having some trouble, you know, controlling the pollution of groundwater, and then there are numerous other problems. There's state regulations that just aren't ready to deal with this new technology.

However, when you look at the kind of things that need to be done in order to make fracking safe compared to what needs to be done to make coal less polluting and safe, what needs to be done to get rid of nuclear waste and to make nuclear power plants safe, I think a lot of people will tell you that the obstacles are much lower for fracking, that these are solvable problems for less money than solving the big problems of coal and nuclear.

CONAN: Yet nuclear, one of its advantages is it does not add carbon emissions to the environment. It is green in that respect. Yes, you've got to figure out a way to dispose of that nuclear spent fuel, but it does not add to climate change.

JOYCE: And that was the, sort of, the calling card that nuclear pulled out of its pocket during the 1990s, and hey look, folks, now that people started to get serious about climate change, they could say hey, we're clean. I mean, we don't emit carbon. That's great.

But that hasn't been enough to push it over, and furthermore, we've seen that the public opinion on climate change took a nosedive in the sense that people got a little less worried about it, and there was no carbon price. So if - without a price on carbon coal remains cheap, and so it's still an argument that they don't win financially.

CONAN: Well, if - we're at the same stage that Germany was. They weren't building any new power plants. They were talking about extending the life of their old power plants, and they've decided not to do that. They say they're going to do this with renewable energy. How are they able to do it, and we're not?

JOYCE: Good question. I would like to go over and find out. In fact, that's something that I hope to be doing. So this is something that the Germans claim that they can do. They're going to have to use probably more natural gas, which does create carbon.

They are probably going to be using nuclear power wheeled in from France. So if they can manage to do it, though, if the Germans can manage to get baseload, regular, 24/7 power out of renewables, then, you know, they could take away the last argument that nuclear has.

CONAN: Baseload, what does that mean?

JOYCE: Well, in the sense that it works 24 hours a day, you know, seven days a week. It's consistent, you know, unlike solar power and wind power. You don't have to worry about when the wind doesn't blow, you don't to worry about when the sun's not shining.

And you can produce a great deal of power, and you're not down a lot of the time, whether for repair or for lack of a source of energy, and that coal and nuclear are the very best at that because their fuel is cheap, they run consistently, efficiently, and it's just the way our big cities need electricity.

CONAN: Well, we'll get more and more into the - let's get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. How are we going to replace the 20 percent of our power currently provided by aging nuclear power plants? Roy(ph) is on the line calling us from Binghamton, New York.

ROY: Yes, hello.

CONAN: Hi.

ROY: I'd like first off commend Germany for the incredible step that they've taken telling the nuclear industry that they are obsolete, as well as did when Tesla and Edison came about telling the whalers that we didn't need the blubber anymore to make electricity.

And I'd also like to commend France in their wisdom in saying that fracking isn't the answer, either. But instead what I would recommend for our baseload, a very challenging project, which would involve a superconductivity loop from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians in which ambient lightning could be harnessed because that's been the whole problem harnessing lightning is that there's such an incredible amount of energy that goes energy that goes in as to how to dissipate it.

And a combination of tidal, the Bay of Fundy runs twice a day, a 40-foot tide. These are incredible opportunities that need to be looked into, and the sea kite concept that the Norwegians are developing shows incredible promise from the oceans, as well. And I'll take my comment off the air.

CONAN: Well, Chris Joyce, a lot of futuristic proposals there. I'd not heard about the ambient loop from the Appalachians to the Rockies.

JOYCE: No. I haven't either.

CONAN: But tidal power, a lot of people talk about the promise of that.

JOYCE: Well, I would make the same argument about solar and wind power, which are even closer at hand than that. But the problem so far has been these are much cleaner and limitless sources of power. But how do you get there from here because we need electricity now, and if - and I know this is a tired argument, but I think it's a strong one, which is in order to get the grid to be able to handle renewables and even natural gas, the pipelines necessary for natural gas, it's going to take time and a lot of investment.

In the meantime, over the next 15, 20, 25, 30 years, there's got to be some sort of bridge. There's got to be something that we can continue to keep our economy thriving. And, you know, that's what we have to deal with right now. Those other technologies are fabulous, and, you know, any number of them could help us out, but it's a matter of what do we do until we perfect it and make it price competitive.

CONAN: And make it price - yet how do we calculate price? People look at the air pollution right now and say there are thousands of people dying every year as the result of air pollution. Statistically, they look at that and say that's accurate. That's part of the price, too, no?

JOYCE: Yeah, the so-called externality of coal, for example. And the EPA has just passed a new rule on mercury, which is going to be making coal a lot more expensive because - and put some coal-fired power plants, you know, away forever, and - the older ones. And that's the sort of thing that we're now cycling into the cost of our energy.

Nuclear is going to have to do this with its waste because we're going to have to find a place to put that waste permanently. There's a process going on now to try to find a replacement for Yucca Mountain, which was dropped, and, you know, that all - getting rid of that, it's just going to add to the cost of nuclear.

So yeah, you have to plan ahead, and in the meantime, things change. That's one of the difficulties of planning for energy.

CONAN: And things change in any number of different ways. We have seen enormous growth in the number of wind turbines, for example, yet wind continues to provide a very tiny fraction of our needs.

JOYCE: Yeah, the interesting statistic on wind is it's one of the fastest growing sources of energy in the world and in this country, but it's still tiny because it's starting out from such a low point. And again, there's a situation with where do you find the best wind.

You know, you can build a wind turbine somewhere, but if you don't have a lot of wind, then it's not going to be price competitive. So you build it where there's the best wind, well, in the Great Plains. And, well, that's great for people in the Great Plains, but how do you get the electricity to the East, where a lot of the demand is?

CONAN: And you can't store it. So...

JOYCE: Yeah, that's another technology we could talk about.

CONAN: NPR's Christopher Joyce is with us here in Studio 3A. When we come back, we'll talk more about the future of nuclear power in the U.S. Is there a better way to generate the 20 percent of our electrical power that comes from old nuclear plants right now? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Nuclear power is a divisive issue, particularly among environmentalists. Some, like the Sierra Club, say there's no such thing as safe nuclear energy and no long-term plan to securely dispose of nuclear waste.

Others, like the Breakthrough Institute, say nuclear power is worth it because it does not make climate change worse, like fossil fuels do. Is there a better way to generate the 20 percent of our electrical power that comes from nuclear plants right now, nuclear plants that start coming offline in the next 10 years or so?

Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And let's go next to Dave(ph), Dave's on the line with us from Baltimore.

DAVE: Hi, good afternoon, Neal, huge fan of the show, very glad to be with you.

CONAN: Thank you.

DAVE: And very glad that you got this as your topic today. A couple of brief comments, I agree very much with what your guest just mentioned in terms of the fact that a lot of these ideas that we have, you know, going really big on solar, really big on tidal, really big on wind, are decades out in terms of getting the technology to where we would need it to be actually a legitimate power source, whereas as he just mentioned, we've got two nuclear plants almost ready to go in Georgia and South Carolina, North Anna 4 in Central Virginia, Calvert Cliffs 3, which is several years out because of roadblocks.

CONAN: And not far down the road from you there in Baltimore.

DAVE: I'm sorry, one more time.

CONAN: And not far down the road from you there in Baltimore.

DAVE: No, not far, about an hour and a half south. The biggest issue, as somebody I heard over the summer say, was not just NIMBY, not in my backyard, but also a lot of people have this thing that called BANANA, build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything. And when we look at nuclear, the big issue in my opinion as a teacher is education.

There's so little understood by the general public about nuclear and about the actual legitimate dangers and about the actual legitimate promises of it. I mean, for example the energy density of it, the entire amount of energy that you will consume, the amount of fuel that you will consume in your entire lifetime, Neal, would fit in a soda can in terms of the uranium fuel pellets.

CONAN: I think I'll stick to Dr. Pepper.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much for the call, we appreciate it.

DAVE: Absolutely, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Joining us now is Michael Shellenberger. He's the president of The Breakthrough Institute, and he's with us today from member station KUNC in Greeley, Colorado. Nice to have you with us today.

MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: Oh, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And we've - obviously could have taken advocates from any number of points of view. We've decided to talk with you to day as a supporter of nuclear energy even after Fukushima Dai-ichi, which of course the costs of that in terms of billions and decades have yet to be measured.

SHELLENBERGER: Yeah, and I should just context this by saying that we're actually advocates of all low-carbon sources of energy. I mean, we've been big advocates for increasing the amount of money we spend on renewable energy R&D from about the $2 billion that we spend annually today to about $15 billion, and another $15 billion on top of that just to, you know, to buy down and to be buying the advanced technologies: solar, wind, advanced nuclear, the rest.

And really we've been advocates of renewables for 10 years. It's only been in the last few years that we've increasingly lost confidence that we can scale up renewables in the time period that we need to scale them up in order to radically reduce emissions. And that's made us - that's forced us to take a harder look at nuclear energy.

And that's kind of been a - it's been a gradual process of coming back around to supporting nuclear energy as folks concerned about the environment. I mean, I think people forget that the environmental movement was largely pro-nuclear up until the late '60s because it was a way to generate pollution-free electricity and also not have to build hydroelectric dams, which destroy natural landscapes.

So it's been - so I think we're advocates of all these advanced energy technologies, and I think it would just be incredibly foolish to take nuclear off the table.

CONAN: Not merely in your view take it off the table, you believe we need rapid expansion.

SHELLENBERGER: Yeah, we do. I mean, I think to provide some context to it, you have a source of energy here which generates 20 percent of our electricity, as you mentioned, 70 percent in France. If you actually look at deaths per energy source, nuclear comes out as one of the best. I think only wind out-performs nuclear, and that even counts the expected deaths from Fukushima because of course there haven't been any deaths yet from it.

The estimates are of some - I think between one and 3,000 eventual cancer deaths from Fukushima, which is obviously serious and of concern, but, you know, in the context of catastrophic climate change risk, you know, in the context of the, you know, thousands of coal miners who die every year, you know, the Deepwater Horizon, fossil energy, all energy production is quite dangerous, including solar panel production.

I mean, people think solar panels are clean. When they install them on their house, they're clean, but when you manufacture them in a place like China, you get all sorts of industrial waste. There was even a riot in one of the towns near a solar panel production, solar factory in China earlier this year because the company had dumped so much waste in the river.

So energy production is a dirty business, and I think it's - you're really having to make some hard choices. I think it's been - within the environmental community, I think an idea took hold in the late '60s that no, no, there was this really easy way to do it, it would just be solar panels and wind turbines and water wheels and, you know, insulation in our homes, and we would never need to have fossil energy or nuclear energy.

And I think that for those of us that kind of, you know, grew up in the post-'60s era, even with growing up with "The Simpsons" as an anti-nuclear TV show, I think when we take a hard look at a world that is going to consume three times more energy over the next century and the need to zero out all emissions from energy production, I mean go to zero by the end of the century, it's just hard to see how you do that without a lot of nuclear energy.

CONAN: And how do you do that without, as our previous caller said, running into the BANANA problem, build absolutely nothing anywhere?

SHELLENBERGER: Right, that is the big issue. I mean, I think what we have - I mean, I think long term, we're optimistic that various publics around the world are going to come back to nuclear. I think where you see the greatest opposition to nuclear energy is in very wealthy countries, where really we live long lives, we have very safe lives.

Countries that are, I think, far less - that have a better perspective, I think, of the overall risk are developing countries, and they haven't slowed down their nuclear renaissance at all since Fukushima. But I think even in the United States, I mean, you have to remember half the country is pro-nuclear. Most of those folks are Republicans and conservatives. Very few of them are like us, more on the liberal side of the political spectrum.

I think when the case gets made properly over the next several years by environmentalists, by progressives, about why we need to take a second look at nuclear, I think we're going to - I think people are going to start to change their mind.

CONAN: Christopher Joyce?

JOYCE: Yeah, Michael, thanks for those comments, and it's interesting to hear from you on this. I wonder, though, you know, you talk about the need to more toward the non-emitting, non-fossil fuels. I mean, the marketplace has shown us so far that it chooses fossil fuels, so they're the cheapest, but, I mean, that's the way it is.

And given the emergency with the climate change, and given the nature of competition in the rest of the world, you know, is it time that this country needs to say look, the marketplace is not going to do this for us, that we need massive subsidies to get to where we need to go?

SHELLENBERGER: Well, I mean, the interesting thing is the more you learn about the history of electricity production in particular but really all modern energy is that governments have always been heavily involved. I mean, start with hydroelectric dams that were financed by the U.S. government.

Nuclear energy is obviously a product of the defense establishment, solar panels from NASA, wind turbines...

JOYCE: Fracking?

SHELLENBERGER: We just did a big study on fracking, which you might have seen.

JOYCE: I did.

SHELLENBERGER: All of the major technologies that led to the shale gas boom, which incidentally have basically doubled United States reserves of natural gas over a period of a decade, all came from federal government investment. There's even a very good book I'm reading right now I highly recommend called "Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?," and it's a serious question because so many of our what he calls general-purpose technologies, from satellites to...

CONAN: Why don't we get to that argument in another day? All right?

SHELLENBERGER: OK, sorry about that.

CONAN: Let's stick to nuclear power.

SHELLENBERGER: Yeah, yeah. So I guess the question is yes. I mean, I think the reality is after Three Mile Island, the United States, the government basically said we're going to move more towards - we're going to move back towards coal and back towards fossil.

You know, governments make these choices. Publics make these choices. Energy is the backbone of a nation's economy, and so ultimately at the end of the day, these are decisions that are made by the public. And that's what's happened in Germany, which is phasing out its nuclear.

I think Japan is up in the air whether it will go back to nuclear, whether it'll go heavily into renewables or whether it's just going to burn a lot of fossil. So ultimately, it's a question I think that the American people are going to decide.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your - well, let's see if we can get a caller on with you. Let's go to Mike(ph), and Mike's with us from Denver. Mike, are you there? Mike?

MIKE: (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Mike?

MIKE: Yes, I'm here.

CONAN: You're on the air, go ahead, please.

MIKE: OK, sorry, sir. Yes, on this nuclear question, that no matter how safe the technology may be purported to be, you're always going to have that chance of radiation breaking loose from a nuclear plant, like what happened with Fukishima. You're always going to have that chance. You're never going to be able to get away from that. So in that one sense, the argument would be how much - how many times does one have to get a proverbial bloody nose before you get away from the guy that's socking you? So that's one side of the argument.

As far as alternatives go, one of the things is that we can look at using a bunch of mirrors to direct sunlight through a central point and create heat that way and thereby turn water into steam the way we do at nuclear plants now. There's also - individually we can look at how we consume energy individually. For example, there's a hardware store in the mountains here in Colorado, I believe, that generates its own energy using solar, and they actually sell power back into the grid.

And then, of course, when it comes to consumer devices, the vast majority of consumer devices and computers and whatnot, anything basically that has a transformer, taking A.C. power to a transformer, we can conceivably come up with a low-voltage power system to power those, and then save the big voltage, the 120 volt or whatever, for the major things that actually require it.

CONAN: Toasters.

MIKE: But I think there's a whole bunch of different solutions that we can look at.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. The alternatives, I'm sure Michael Shellenberger would advocate any of those that prove to be practical. The statistics, he points out, on nuclear, you say yes, statistically the safest - or one of the safest. One accident changes those.

SHELLENBERGER: Well, that's absolutely right. I mean, again, this is about public perception, which I think we should take very seriously. I mean, it may very well be that the public decides that it doesn't want nuclear anymore. And I think that what people need to realize is that they are in essence deciding to stick with fossil energy and all the risks that that brings. And if I could just end with one thing, we have a new e-book out called "Love Your Monsters," and the title essay comes from - I mean the title comes from an essay by a very good French anthropologist who describes the Frankenstein myth and says, you know, really, this is a parable for our attitude towards technology.

Dr. Frankenstein, his mistake was not in trying to, you know, use technology to create something. It was that he abandoned his creation when it didn't turn out right. And we think it's a powerful parable for things like nuclear where, you know, the truth is we should, you know, he argues we should treat our technologies as we would our children. You don't abandon your children when they misbehave or when they don't turn out exactly like you would wanted. You love them. You care for them, and you improve them.

And I think that we should have that attitude towards all of our technologies. I don't think that – I don't think that - I think that nuclear, obviously, has some risks. Solar and wind have big problems as well. And I think we have to consider all of that in making these choices.

CONAN: Michael Shellenberger, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

SHELLENBERGER: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Michael Shellenberger joined us from KUNC in Greely, Colorado. He's president of the think tank The Breakthrough Institute. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's some emails. Tim sends an email, says in order to replace 20 percent of the electricity produced by nuclear power plants, I'd like to see two things: a conscious effort to actually save energy by homeowners by changing their habits, conservation if you will.

Secondly, I've seen firsthand homes that are weatherized. Average savings? About 25 percent. We shouldn't be concerned with producing more but in saving more. Chris?

JOYCE: Well, I think that's a good argument. I mean - and good luck to you. I agree completely. But getting Americans to save is a slow process. I mean, you know, we've seen, I guess, no more Hummers. That's a good sign, maybe, for conservation, but it takes a long time to do that, and it takes effort.

CONAN: This from James in Sagle, Idaho. I'd like to point out it's false that wind and solar cannot provide base-load power. There was a study just last year of wind power along the East Coast of the U.S. by tying together seven sites, not including Cape Wind, showing that the wind is always blowing in enough of those places to guarantee power, not to mention the Saudi Arabia wind, the U.S. high plains. Don't believe the fossil fuel industry propaganda. So there's an argument for that.

And this from Shawn in Jackson, Michigan. Would it be possible to touch on the possibilities of space-based solar power? It's been mentioned as an engineering problem, not a science problem.

JOYCE: Yeah. And I've - there have been fascinating and intriguing propositions for building sources like that, as well as tying together, you know, offshore wind turbines and that sort of thing. And these are great. It just always comes down to who's going to pay for them - and right now, is the customer, the rate payer, willing to pay more money to get what they're used to getting cheap? I mean our energy in this country is very, very cheap, and we're not just used to paying what the real cost of it is.

CONAN: The real cost? I mean, how do you calculate the real cost?

JOYCE: The real cost is, you know, in nuclear, it's the additional cost of getting rid of nuclear waste, which we haven't really paid for yet. It's the cost in coal - burning coal, of the mercury and the soot and the particulates and the health care - the extra health care that we have to pay for due to that; that's been going on for decades. And these so-called externalities just have not been part of what we pay for. And you know, if Americans are willing to pay for higher costs for their energy, we could get energy that's not as polluting.

CONAN: Lauren from Sonoma emails: You need to hear from sustainability people on the energy footprint of nuclear plants. All that steel and concrete, the mining of uranium use more BTUs of carbon than they produce in carbon-free energy, plus the fact that the government is responsible for ensuring nuclear plants show that the bean counters on Wall Street consider it too big a risk. And that's part of the...

JOYCE: They do, yes. I mean, that's been the Achilles' heel of nuclear for a while now, is that even as the NRC and others say, and even environmental groups say, look, they're safer than they used to be, there's been a lot of progress, it comes down dollars and cents. It's just very expensive, and investors are saying, you know, I think we've got better alternatives, at least for my money.

CONAN: And for their money, right now, what do people in the power industry say is going to be the future as these plants start to come offline in the next 10 years and so?

JOYCE: Well, some of them I've talked to say we don't know, and we're worried about that. I know that the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which is the people who run the national electric grid, they've come out with a report just in the past week saying natural gas is where it looks to be. We don't have a lot of large - most of our natural gas, electric producers, are peak - they produce peak power. That's the, you know, not the base-load power. That's when there's a surge of demand, and then you have to cycle up a plant really fast...

CONAN: A hot day in the summertime.

JOYCE: Yeah. So they come on fast, and then they can turn off, and it's no big deal. You know, there are big base-load gas plants. Japan has a bunch of them, and you can build them. It takes a while, and of course, in the past people have been burned by going to natural gas as a big source because the price is fairly volatile. And the price of coal and the price of nuclear - of uranium has not been so volatile. So it could be gas, but you know, we'll see.

CONAN: And the environmental impact of gas with the methane produced in the production, and of course it does release carbon emissions...

JOYCE: It does.

CONAN: ...part of the burning, so...

JOYCE: It certainly does.

CONAN: ...these problems are not going away. Chris, glad you can answer all of our questions.

JOYCE: Yes. Hard questions. Thank you for inviting me for the hard-question session.

CONAN: NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce with us here in Studio 3A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.