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Q&A with Duane Sand: Ten thousand jobs from nuclear power

Duane Sand making his presentation on nuclear power plant in the Red River Vallet to the editorial board.Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Earthquake hazard map of the United States. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Duane Sand has not had much success in politics, the career for which most North Dakotans know him. He ran for Congress four times and lost on all four occasions.

But Sand has been much more successful in the nonpolitical part of his career: specifically, his U.S. Navy service as a nuclear submarine officer and his civilian work in the nuclear industry.

It’s this background that led Sand to suggest in 2011 that North Dakota look into building a nuclear power plant in the Red River Valley.

And it’s the same background that’s now leading Sand to renew his call, because he still believes North Dakota would be a perfect spot -- and that the state could benefit enormously from the plant’s creation of an estimated 10,000 jobs.

Sand is a 1990 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and now is a captain in the Navy Reserve. He is the highest ranking naval reservist in North Dakota. He has served on nuclear submarines around the world and also has worked as a civilian safety inspector for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Sand spoke recently with the Herald’s editorial board about his idea for a nuclear power plant. Below is a transcript, edited for clarity and length.

Q. You’re proposing that utilities and other partners join forces to build a nuclear power plant in the Red River Valley, probably somewhere between Grand Forks and Fargo.

What makes you so sure this area would be a good location?

A. Several reasons.

First, this region is exceptionally stable geologically. That means we’re at very low risk of earthquakes -- and nuclear power plants do not like earthquakes.

Here is a map of the seismological or earthquake activity in the country. White means very low activity, darker colors mean higher activity.

Now, look at all this white space in the Red River Valley. It’s one of the most geologically stable regions in the United States.

There’s a little bit of white down there on the Texas coast, a little bit in southern Florida. But what do they have that we don’t have? First, they have less white space, and second, they have hurricanes. We don’t have hurricanes here.

Second: For the the first time in literally 30 years, America once again is building nuclear power plants. America’s opinion of nuclear power has changed since the Three Mile Island accident and the movie called “The China Syndrome” from that era.

Today, a handful of new nuclear power plants are being built in the Southeast, and they’re likely to come on line before 2020.

So, there’s already starting to be a renaissance -- and with the push for global “green energy,” meaning the scaling down of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants, there really is only one option, and that’s nuclear.

There is no fusion reactor yet that works. There are no solar panels that work 24 hours a day; there are no windmills that rotate when there’s no wind -- and you can’t depend on those two sources for baseload electricity anyway.

Nuclear is the only way.

Third, if and when we do bring back this industry, it’s going to be a huge boon to the American economy.  I talked to the Nuclear Energy Institute last week, getting updated on the most recent figures; and as it stands, building one dual-unit nuclear power plant -- that’s two reactors in one location, like most are throughout the country -- generates roughly $13 billion in economic activity, including 10,000 new jobs. High-paid jobs.

That’s thousands of new apartment units or homes, and hundreds of teachers, doctors, nurses, construction people, retailers, wholesalers. It’s a huge benefit to wherever the plants are.

There basically would be a town brought up around this. It might not be quite as big as what happened to Williston during the boom, but it would be big. And it wouldn’t depend on the price of oil, or the price of wheat or sugar beets or anything else.

Another reason is our proximity to the Eastern Interconnection power grid. The new CapX2020 project -- Minnesota’s biggest transmission line expansion in 40 years -- left space for another big power source to plug into it. They were planning on some large expansion based on baseload power.

And once we get enough people who decide they want to do this, it won’t take long. This is a 10-year project maximum, and I know that because I know the regulations that are involved and the timelines that the new plants have followed in the Southeast.

But it just takes a critical mass. And it needs to get done because it makes sense.

Q. What happened when you proposed this a few years ago?

A. Since we met back then, I’ve talked with the president of Basin Electric, the chief executive of Montana Dakota Utilities; they’re supportive of looking into the idea. I’ve worked with lobbyists out of Xcel Energy, and I helped get the North Dakota House to unanimously pass a resolution supporting nuclear power.

But then, two days before it was to go to the state Senate, Fukushima happened -- the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, which was caused by the tsunami in 2011. So, the Senate voted it down.

So, I made some inroads, but then I had to actually go out and make a living, and I’m only now getting back to the idea.

Q. Speaking of Fukushima and Three Mile Island, what about people’s concerns about safety?

A. The thing is, if you look at statistics, you’ll see that the safest industry that generates baseload electrical power is nuclear. Nuclear is the safest.

In fact, a nuclear power plant is one of the safest industrial working areas in the country.

There has never been even a single fatality caused by commercial nuclear power in the United States -- but there are lots of fatalities from coal. There are fatalities from gas explosions and the like.

The facts are that flying is safer than driving, and nuclear is safer than coal. Not a single fatality in 40 years -- that’s significant. And the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 didn’t even emit any particulate radiation into the air; it was all contained. Some gases were released, but those were inert gases that already exist in the atmosphere.

There was certainly an accident; there was certainly a meltdown -- but it all got contained. No one died, no one got injured.

We need to defend nuclear power because it’s defendable.

Nuclear is the safest, and over the long term, it’s also the most economical when measured in cents per kilowatt. Thirteen billion dollars is a lot of money, but nobody’s going to have to fork over $13 billion. There are federal loan guarantees that are literally signed by the president of the United States to finance construction of a nuclear power plant. There would be a substantial investment, but I think we could do that.

Q. Talk more about nuclear power’s role in the modern energy landscape.

A. As you know, there’s a global push for green energy and for cutting down on carbon emissions. In the United States, the Clean Power Plan by the Environmental Protection Agency was announced in August.

North Dakota doesn’t do well under it because all of our baseload capability is coal, and burning coal emits greenhouse gases.

Remember, if the world is going to be pushed to reduce greenhouse gases, it will have to build -- like China is building, like France is building, like most industrialized countries are building -- more nuclear power plants.

And if we’re going to rank the states, and if we can lower North Dakota’s carbon-produced- per-kilowatt-generated number to be comparable with Minnesota’s, then maybe we get more federal credits or incentives, and maybe we get on better terms with Minnesota, which is suing us over our production of coal-based power.

As I said, the utilities seem interested. And I think that if we could get Basin Electric and Xcel Energy and maybe a few others to come together to look at building a nuclear power plant, they’d see that it would be worth doing.

By the way, it would be a very small investment up front, because the first thing that is required is just a Safety Analysis Report. And I’m confident that the report would come back and say, “You know what? Based on this map, based on population density, based on prevailing winds, based on traffic and security and all of these major factors, this location in the Red River Valley would be really good.” Then, we could get this done.

So that’s what I’m hoping for -- a local consortium of companies and a plan that makes Minnesota want to help us.

Q. Would the region have enough water to support a nuclear power plant?

A. The biggest criticism that I got when I talked about this a few years ago was, “Duane doesn’t know what he’s talking about because we’re not next to the ocean or a large lake.”

But the most modern new plants in America are required by regulation to be able to do both closed- and open-cycle cooling. So, if you’re closed cycle, you’re just recirculating water from a lake or a big man-made pond, and all you’re doing with that water is cooling the reactor.

The biggest nuclear power plant in Illinois is closed-cycle, and its nearest water source is 6 to 8 miles away. There’s a pipeline from it to the plant.

So, in the valley, we’d have to build a man-made lake. I think we could do that. We’re trying to build a man-made canal around Fargo right now, aren’t we?

Now, here’s another water-related issue: The closest nuclear power plant to Chicago is the Dresden Generating Station. It’s on the confluence of two rivers; and every other year or so, the Army Corps of Engineers calls the officials at the plant to ask them to go “open cycle.”

The reason is that they want Dresden to suck from the river, then put heated water back into the river to thaw ice to prevent the flooding of homes.

Who’s to say we couldn’t do the same thing here? It doesn’t take a lot of warm water to melt a lot of cold ice. It would be a good project for someone at UND: How much water at 110 degrees would it take to thaw, say, 3 feet of ice for 200 miles? Remember, we could build a pipeline halfway up and start putting heated water in there, too.

Another example along those lines: When the nuclear power plant at Monticello, Minn., shuts down in the winter, the local citizens are not happy. That’s because the plant is always open-cycle in Monticello, which means the Mississippi River stays thawed. It hosts birds and ducks and geese all winter long -- even in central Minnesota, because the water is warm, and there’s no ice.

In other words, maybe we’d want to continually bleed water into the Red River in the winter. Why couldn’t we do it here? Why shouldn’t we do it here?

Q. Years ago, did you also make the point that reactors are reaching the end of their life spans?

A. Yes, and it’s hugely important.  Reactors are licensed only for up to 80 years, and that’s broken down as 40, plus 20, plus 20. And over half of our reactors are now into their first 20 -- their second license phase.

We’re going to have to build a dozen reactors a year pretty soon to keep up with the reactors that are going to go off-line.

Again, what this means is that there’s going to be a renaissance. There has to be a renaissance.

So, somebody’s going to building these in the near future. Why shouldn’t North Dakota be one of those places?