Bill Schalk is Spokesperson for the Cook Nuclear Power Plant. This plant, owned and operated by American Electric Power, consists of two pressurized water reactors, Unit 1 and Unit 2, that have been used in commercial operation since 1975 and 1978 respectively. These units produce enough electricity for more than one and one half million average homes throughout Michigan and Indiana..
Marina Csomor: Can you describe the process of energy production at Cook Nuclear Plant? How does an atom of uranium turn into electricity?
Bill Schalk: The process of electric generation is very similar, and there are a number of different fuels you can use to do it. So, in the case of a nuclear power plant, we fission uranium in a reactor vessel, which has water going through the reactor vessel, and it heats the water, which is under pressure, to extremely high temperatures, and then ultimately through a heat exchanger we produce steam. Now the steam then is used to turn turbines and the turbines turn a generator and the generator produces electricity. Why I say it's not that much different than other fuel sources - in the case of our company, Indiana Michigan Power, we have a lot of coal generation. In the case of a coal plant, you burn pulverized coal in a boiler and then that heats water that turns to steam and then again you turn steam into electricity through a turbine generator system. So, the only difference between a coal plant and a nuclear plant is how you make the steam. Once you have steam, the process of turning steam into electricity is the same, and, in fact, we call that the secondary side. So that side of our plant at a nuclear plant is really very similar to that side of a plant at a coal plant. The only difference is the fuel source you use in order to heat the water to make the steam.
Csomor: The Cook Nuclear plant is located along the southwestern shoreline in Berrien County, Michigan. Is Michigan a prime location for a nuclear power plant because of weather conditions or geographical features, or can these plants really be erected anywhere?
Schalk: Any electric generating station is going to need a body of water nearby. The water is used for condensing the steam once it passes through the turbine. So, in the case of nuclear plants, or really any generating plants, [they] aren't typically that geographic specific to climate. Basically, it's the body of water. Many nuclear power plants are located on rivers. But, it just so happens that we've got this wonderfully huge Lake Michigan on our shoreline. And so, the plentiful supply of water is the key, and being on Lake Michigan makes that handy, but you could have a nuclear plant or a coal plant pretty much anywhere as long as you had a river or a lake. In some cases they use man-made reservoirs, and there's a nuclear plant outside of Phoenix, Arizona that uses recycled sewage water as the cooling for it. So, there's the largest nuclear site in the country [and it] is actually located in the middle of the desert outside Phoenix. In that case, they have to get the water in a little different fashion than we do. We've got this great lake. But other than that, all you need is water.
Csomor: In the last few years, Michigan has been working to become the nation's alternative energy leader, and countless recent news headlines have detailed talk of wind turbines being erected and of alternative battery plants being established, but we never hear anything about the development of nuclear power plants. Can nuclear energy be considered a renewable source of energy or is it not considered renewable?
Schalk: From a hard-line standpoint, it is not renewable like solar power and wind generation or hydro is renewable, in that the sun is going to shine and the wind is going to blow and the water is going to flow. It's a whole lot closer to a renewable source in that the supply of nuclear fuel is, I don't want to say inexhaustible because it's not completely inexhaustible, but there is an extremely plentiful supply of nuclear fuel, and it's closer to what we normally associate renewable power with as green energy or clean energy. And to the extent that it's green or clean energy, absolutely. We have no emissions like a coal plant or a gas plant would have. So, from the standpoint of emission or green energy, we're certainly renewable. Not quite by the strictest sense of the word "renewable," but, certainly, the focus under Governor Jennifer Granholm has been for clean energy and for forward looking, and we absolutely qualify as a clean energy.
Csomor: Are nuclear power plants something that environmentalists advocate or do they not really pay attention and should they be paying attention, asking for more nuclear plants?
Schalk: Well, that's a good question because it's kind of funny to even go before my time - I've been in the industry 25 years now - but initially the environmentalists were very much for nuclear power and initially even the Sierra Club was in support of nuclear power. Then the issue of waste came up and certainly the issues that arose in the nuclear industry with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, two notably significant nuclear accidents. That kind of got the environmentalists back away from nuclear based on nuclear waste issues, safety issues. It's kind of funny now that one of the leading nuclear advocacy groups, CASEnergy (Clean and Safe Energy Coalition), and actually the former governor of New Jersey, Christine Whitman, and one of the founders of Green Peace are two very outspoken advocates of nuclear power right now. It's funny that now, in relation, when we're all dealing with global warming and greenhouse gases, nuclear has come back around again in the eyes of some environmentalists. So, back to your question of do I think it should be considered from an environmental standpoint, absolutely. The nuclear waste situation is a political problem, not a scientific problem, and we have solutions for nuclear waste, we just have to have the political will to do the right thing concerning waste disposal. And given that case, it's reliable, it's safe, and it's clean, and certainly should be considered, I think, by anyone who has a strong feeling about global warming or emission. It ought to be real real high on their list.
Csomor: There seems to be a stigma with the idea of nuclear power. Despite safety improvements, many people still fear nuclear energy and radioactive waste. Is there any justification for this fear?
Schalk: Well, I was at a meeting yesterday in Chicago with some nuclear communicators, and one of them said a pretty good thing that I've experienced but never heard expressed: If you sit down in a room with a bunch of sixteen-year-old kids and you say, "Word association: nuclear," they are going to say "bombs" and "waste" and "Homer Simpson" and "radiation" and "three-eyed monsters" and "green slime." And none of that, well, that's true in what people will think, but that's not at all true for anybody who's associated with the generation of electricity by nuclear power. I mean, I like Homer Simpson too. It's a funny show. But it's not representative of how we operate a nuclear power plant.
So, one of the things we do as nuclear communicators - this was in a discussion about energy information centers - it's our responsibility as an industry to do a better job of communicating about our industry so we don't have those crazy fears and don't think of green slime. We need to educate the public on exactly what a nuclear power plant is. We try to do that through tours to the plant. We've always had a very proactive position, and the whole industry kind of started [with this position] early in the 70s when [many plants] were being built. A lot of plants had visitor centers and open access, and 9/11 has cost us a big hit on that. The massively increased security requirements - we always had security requirements, but they've been really increased since 9/11 - really limit our ability to get people on site. But, we know how important it is to get people here. We just had a family tour day a month ago. A nuclear plant isn't a place where you can take your kid to work day, and so we've been having family tours. This is the second summer we did it, and we've brought, at this point, up to 750 or so in each of three days we've had it. And kids love it. They've never had the chance to see where mommy or daddy works, and now they can come in. We do an outreach to school groups who come to the visitor center. We still do that, and we do our best to meet our security requirements, but we still get school groups in. Yeah, I think education is key to allaying those fears and getting people thinking in the right frame of reference about a nuclear power plant.
And one more thing to that, we do surveys. [After giving] a survey around the country in different locations, roughly you're going to find anywhere from 65 to 85 percent of the people generally support nuclear power. Where you get that 65 to 85, you find that people in the midwest and south have a tendency to support it more than other groups. The west and east coast - a little more radical thinking maybe or local policies that have been away from it - you have a little more resistance to nuclear power on the east and west coast. You have better support of nuclear power under educated people. They're more likely [the] people who have had some science in college and things and are more likely to understand the safety factors that are built in. And the other one that you get to is the people that live around nuclear plants. [They] have a much higher level of comfort than someone who doesn't know it. When you have someone who lives near a plant, they know the people that work there. They trust the people that work there. They know that it hasn't hurt them to this point. And so the comfort level goes up considerably when you have people who live near a plant because they have a better knowledge. And that's where we get back to education. Knowledge is power when it comes to understanding what we do here for a living.
Csomor: Despite safety features and improvements that have been implicated, are there any jobs at the plant that are still considered to be dangerous?
Schalk: Well, we're regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). There's very specific regulations that have to do with the occupational exposure to radiation. And one of the things that's come up and that's kind of debated in the industry is low-level exposure to radiation. What are the health effects of low-level exposure to radiation? There are scientists who make the case that what would be low level over a long period of time have extremely limited or maybe even no impact on life expectancy.
What I think comes from this is, yeah, we all know we use radiation for cancer, so we have localized high doses of radiation. It kills cancer cells. Well, it kills all cells. That's what makes your hair fall out and that's what makes people sick and gives people a hard time. And part of the problem is you don't have a whole lot of data around what is the effect of exposure to radiation. Actually, I believe the NRC has just sponsored one of the most extensive surveys to - I mean it's going to be several years that they're going to establish [data] taken around nuclear power plants and see if there really is any health impact. And, by that way, you're thinking more in terms in living around a nuclear power plant, but the same could be said as working in a nuclear power plant. We do have an extreme amount of radiation energy in our reactor core. There's no question about it. That fuel is highly radioactive and potentially deadly for thousands of years. But we manage that.
It's kind of funny, in the recent year, I've got a personal experience that I'll relate to you. When you exit the plant, we leave through a monitor that would alarm had you any radioactive material on you. And I've walked through that monitor. And Bill Downey, who's my assistant sitting in with us, he had that experience because we're both to the age now where we had a stress test - a radiological stress test. And so we both go in, and they shoot us up with this radioactive gunk so they can take pictures of our heart when we're on a treadmill. So, when we came back from that medical exercise, we walked past that monitor that we have used to clear the plant every day for in my case 20 years, in Bill's case just a couple of years. And we tripped that monitor from 15 feet away. Our bodies had so much radiation from a medical test, we couldn't even get near the radiological monitor that we have to clear, that you have to stand inside. So we were thousands of times above the level that we would not let anyone leave with on a regular basis, and yet we voluntarily did that for a medical treatment. And it cleared our bodies in about a week or two weeks - that radioactive element that we used for the medical exercise - and we were able to go through.
But I tell that story to say, OK, here's something I voluntarily do because I think it's going to be good for me because I'm taking a medical test, and that goes back to "What do you think of when you think of nuclear?" Most people think of bombs. Well, I think of helping me save my own life when it comes to heart health and knowing whether or not I've got a problem with my arteries. I think of nuclear in terms of something that's good for me, so I voluntarily do it for a medical treatment, and even at much higher levels than we would be exposed to as an occupational work dose.
Csomor: Is it more difficult or expensive to run a nuclear plant than say a coal plant? Does it take more careful coordinating and execution of daily energy producing processes?
Schalk: Yes and No. The yes: It's more expensive to build a nuclear power plant than a coal plant. Right now it's expensive to build any kind of power plant, but it is more expensive to build a nuclear power plant. It's much less expensive to operate a nuclear power plant. Getting back to the fuel cost, once you have a coal plant that's built and a nuclear plant that's built, nuclear is the cheapest fuel source. So when you're kind of leaning in and out toward going forward - should we build more plants or should we find another fuel source? - right now, nuclear is the cheapest fuel source, but it is more expensive to build. That's a little bit of a bullet you have to bite. If you average that out over forty years or sixty years, and you say, "OK, from cradle to grave, what's going to be the cheapest source?," over time, nuclear is going to be cheaper because that fuel source is so much cheaper. But initially, it's a bigger hit on the pocketbook to build a nuclear plant than a coal plant.
Csomor: How does the operation of a nuclear plant compare to that of a wind farm or solar field?
Schalk: Right now, in terms of a wind farm, it's still going to be a little more expensive. Solar is pretty expensive. The cost for solar is pretty high. You have a couple of issues when you come to wind. And one of the issues is, OK, if you look at the whole country, and even if you look at Michigan, where is the wind in Michigan? The place it's windiest is in the thumb. The best wind capability in Michigan is the thumb. And what's also true about the thumb is that's where the fewest people live. Now, where the fewest people live, where is your transmission? You don't have a lot of transmission where you don't have people. While you do have the best wind in the thumb, you have the least availability of transmission, so now you have to factor into your costs, in addition to the cost of building wind turbines, you have to build transmission too. And the other piece you have to add in for wind is the fact that wind is not reliable for baseload generation. There's going to be days when it's not windy, and I still want to run my T.V. and refrigerator, and so what are we going to do? You can't completely rely on wind as a what we call baseload generation - baseload is something that runs all the time. So you build wind towers, that's good, but you're also probably going to have to build a gas plant or something else as backup to that wind plant because you can't always count on that wind being there. So while, in an altruistic society we offer to see the benefits of wind turbines, we're also an electric utility, and the public turns to us to supply them with electricity when they want it, when it's windy and when it's not windy. So, we have to also spend money on baseload generation that's going to be available to us when the wind is not blowing.
Csomor: The Cook Nuclear Plant produces enough electricity for one and a half million average homes, which to me seems like a significant amount of energy. This plant seems to be running successfully. Seeing this success, do you think such electricity-producing nuclear plants could be better utilized here in Michigan?
Schalk: Right now, the biggest road block to new nuclear in Michigan is the electric demand. With the economy going south in 2008, the demand has dropped off significantly, not just in Michigan, but probably worse in Michigan than in many states. So, right now, the biggest problem is that our demand is such that it does not support new power plants much less a nuclear power plant. So, the thing to think about is, yeah, we need to get the economy to rebound, and we need to get the electric demand back up. Certainly nuclear would become a very attractive fuel source for future baseload, large-scale generating plants in the state. It's good to build some wind. We support fuel diversity in the sense that what diversity in anything does for you is that you don't have all your eggs in one basket. And so we support fuel diversity and all sources of generation but certainly nuclear right now - Right now nationally we're at about 19 percent of the country's generation. I think it's a little higher in Michigan because we've got the Cook Plant, we've got the Palisades Plant, and the Fermi Plant by Detroit Edison. So we've got four units, but three large-scale nuclear plants in the state. Certainly we want to maintain that percentage of nuclear production. It's very hard. There's coal plants that are denied being built now because of air quality issues. So, at some point the economy is going to rebound, population is still going to grow, and we're going to need more electricity. And it's got to come from somewhere, and if some of it can come from wind and renewables, that's great, but it also ought to come from nuclear power as well.
For more information about the Cook Nuclear Plant visit http://www.cookinfo.com/cookplant.htm.