October 11, 2007 4:00 AM PDT
Newsmaker: The public face of nuclear power in the U.S.See all Newsmakers
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.
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.
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