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Nuclear Energy in IndyCar - Q&A with John Herron

by Mark J. Cipolloni
Tuesday, May 31, 2011


John Herron
During the Indy 500 weekend I had the opportunity to interview John Herron, president and CEO of Entergy Nuclear.  They're responsible for about 11 nuclear power plant reactors in the USA. 

John is very active in the nuclear industry, serving on a number of boards. 

You recently launched this nuclear clean air initiative, is that right?

JOHN HERRON:  That's correct. 

Q. And that's the sponsor of the IndyCar for Simona De Silvestro. 

JOHN HERRON:  That's right. 

Simona de Silvestro's Nuclear Energy sponsored car
Q. What did your group see in IndyCar and Simona that led you to sponsoring her? 

JOHN HERRON:  We actually sponsored her in the former Champ Car Atlantic Series.  We had a couple races we sponsored her.  We kind of saw early on that she has a lot of talent.  She's a very, very good racecar driver, and she's just a sweetheart of a person. 

So we were very comfortable that she would represent our industry well.  And that's why we decided to go down that path. 

Q. So is this more of a nuclear awareness campaign or is there a business-to-business connection for you?

JOHN HERRON:  It's more of an awareness that you have people out there asking questions about nuclear power.  What better way to promote it than on the side of a great car with a great driver. 

Q. Talk to me about nuclear.  That's always a big, controversial topic in politics.  We get a lot of clean energy from nuclear plants.  Do you see someday it would be our primary source of power in this country? 

JOHN HERRON:  I don't ever see it as the primary source.  It's no different than your investment portfolio that you have.  You're going to have some diversity.  You need to have that in the fuel mix also. 

But we need to start looking at, from an energy policy, for our country, we got to start to move more towards clean, non-CO2-emitting type of fuels.  Nuclear is obviously a key to that. 

Q. From what I know nuclear powerplants emit almost zero carbon, right? 

John Herron (R) talks to's Mark Cipolloni
JOHN HERRON:  That's correct. 

Q. In terms of natural gas, which I guess is the cleanest burning fossil fuel, it only emits like 2% of what a natural gas plant would emit. 

JOHN HERRON:  That's correct. 

Q. So why don't people get it? 

JOHN HERRON:  Well, you know, education is the key.  I have to be frank with you.  Our industry did not do a good job of educating the American people on nuclear power.  I've been in this business since 1972.  I was in the Navy.  I spent many years going to college and going to school really trying to understand this whole technology. 

It's very difficult.  It's very difficult to explain this technology and to calm the fears of people on nuclear power. 

Q. There's always the concern about what do you do with your radioactive waste.  Could this waste be stolen and used for nuclear weapons.  There's always a lot of that fear out there.  A lot of it is education, as you say. 


Q. We recently had a disaster with the earthquake in Japan.  Was that a setback for your industry? 

JOHN HERRON:  It's a setback, without a doubt.  I think we're still learning a lot.  But I'll remind you that in 1979 when we had Three Mile Island, that was a setback for our industry.  As a result of that, like any incident, I think any technology should look at is:  What do you learn from it, what do you do as a result of that, what lessons learned do you bring back into, and what changes do you make, whether it be training, design or education for your workforce. 

It's a setback, but we are very, very strong about making sure that we learn from these types of issues. 

Q. That was one of the worst disasters in the nuclear energy history with three reactors being affected.  I was reading that with Chernobyl, which actually blew up, 50 people died in that accident. 

JOHN HERRON:  Chernobyl was pretty bad.  But that's a significantly different design than any of the designs that we have in the United States.  But the Fukashima issue, the information is still slowly coming out of Japan.  We're getting more and more data to understand what happened.  I think you're going to find that, without being too I don't want to use the word 'undermining' how the Japanese people ran their plant, you're going to find there's a lot of training issues that are going to come out from this. 

Q. That was a pretty bad earthquake, severe earthquake.  If it wasn't for the ocean water coming in and flooding the generators, maybe there wouldn't have been such a big problem. 

JOHN HERRON:  Absolutely.

Q. The fallacy is that we lost about 50 people in Chernobyl, I don't think anybody was actually killed in Japan from the Nuclear Reactor accident. 

JOHN HERRON:  That's correct. 

Q. Yet over 20,000 people died in the Japan earthquake. 

JOHN HERRON:  That's correct. 

Q. What's this big fear, you know?  The worst Nuclear accident, you lose 50.  We lose 20,000 in an earthquake and nobody stops buying homes overlooking the ocean. 

JOHN HERRON:  The tsunami was 14 meters high.  Nobody ever predicted you would have a tsunami that high and flood out the diesels (backup generators). 

Again, though, in the United States, we look at all those scenarios.  We look at not only the training requirements for operators.  We call it beyond design basis, severe accident management guidelines.  I know it's kind of technical, but we have all that, training on that.  We have a very strong regulator that makes sure that we can implement those types of, you know, procedural changes and process issues that we have, so... 

Q. You said you don't think nuclear would ever be the sole source of power in this country. 

JOHN HERRON:  Uh-huh. 

Q. But we're getting close to $5 for a gallon of gasoline.  If we hit $10, is it imaginable that people would buy electric cars, recharged with energy from nuclear power, the end result being near zero carbon emissions? 

JOHN HERRON:  I'm not sure what the dollar amount per gallon of gasoline is going to have to reach for people to say, This is enough.  This is ultimately my dream, that the American people and the world will recognize that we do have an answer for the CO2 issue.  We do have an answer for independence on foreign oil.  Nuclear power is absolutely the key to that. 

But, like anything else, I think you do have to have a diverse portfolio.  I don't think you can ever be 100% nuclear.  I don't think it would be a smart decision for policy makers in our country. 

Q. I read somewhere where France's energy is 90% nuclear. 

JOHN HERRON:  80%.  Again, they have a difficult situation.  They don't have a lot of natural resources.  They have to rely on other foreign countries to provide them natural gas, from Russia, whatever it is.

Q. But if it's working. 

JOHN HERRON:  It's definitely a good technology.  By the way, they deal with their waste very well. 

Q. That's one of my questions.  I was reading where the French recycle a lot of their waste. 

JOHN HERRON:  Absolutely.  I just went to their facility there three or four weeks ago and looked at their recycling process.  Excellent way to do it. 

We can do this.  It's our technology, by the way.  We're the ones that designed this.  The United States.  It's our technology.  During the Carter administration, they shut that down. 

Q. Well, speaking of that, Senator McCain, when he was running for president, wanted to build a hundred new nuclear powerplants.  President Obama, not only killed the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Storage project, he's done nothing to energize the Nuclear Power industry.  We still don't see one new plant under construction yet.  We haven't built one for 30 years.  That has to be frustrating for you. 

JOHN HERRON:  No, we are building them right now.  Southern Company is building two.  Scan is building a plant.  Very slow, though.  It is frustrating for me.  I think we should be a little bit more aggressive. 

Again, it's an energy policy criteria that our country has to decide what is it that we want to do.  We don't know what we want to do. 

Q. We were once the leader in nuclear energy.  Not anymore. 

JOHN HERRON:  Not anymore.

Q. It's all because of politics, Three Mile Island?

JOHN HERRON:  Not really Three Mile Island.  I think a lot of it has to do with people being comfortable with nuclear energy.  Again, we're dealing with a whole different issue as far as natural gas prices being $4 a million BTUs.  That makes our business case a little bit more difficult to support nuclear power.  What I mean by that is that I can put in a gas-fired CCGT, let's say, and it costs about the same if I was going to build a new nuclear plant on a dollar per kw.  You have really less risk in building that combined gas cycle versus building a brand-new nuclear powerplant. 

Southern Company is building two, and Scan is building.  You'll see some more come up in the United States, but it's not as aggressive as I think we should be on it. 

Q. It's projected that by 2030 the worldwide need for electrical power is going to increase by 77%.  Should the growth be with nuclear rather than fossil fuel-burning facilities spewing pollutants that are silently killing us?

JOHN HERRON:  Absolutely.  Remember now, we have third world countries out there that want the quality of life we have.  Don't forget that.  In order for them to have the quality of life, what do they need?  They need power.  They need clean water.  They need electricity.  They're going to get it.  China is going to build 40 to 50 new nuclear powerplants.  India 25 to 30 that are on the books right now to start building. 

Guess what, they deserve to have a good quality of life.  It's directly proportional to electricity. 

Q. Tell us about today's reactors.  Are they smaller than they used to be?  I was reading somewhere where the reactors, they made them smaller now. 

JOHN HERRON:  No.  What you're getting confused with is, you know, we have the typical light water reactors, like the AP 1000 or the design that EDF has.  Those are about 1,000 megawatts to 1,500 megawatts depending on the design.  We're also looking at small modular reactors.  That's what you're thinking about. 

The thought behind small modular reactors is to be able to land them in maybe some of our military facilities, okay, for some independence and protection from the grid, or real remote locations where you don't need 1,500 megawatts, maybe you only need 150 megawatts. 

The jury is still out on small modular reactors, whether it will ultimately be cost beneficial to build a small reactor like that.  But third world countries, you will see third world countries will go down this path of small modular reactors. 

Q. I guess Entergy is currently a domestic company. 

JOHN HERRON:  That's right.

Q. With its sponsorship in IndyCar, do you hope to raise a global presence or do you want to stay a domestic company? 

JOHN HERRON:  You know, our core business is domestic.  I will tell you, though, that I'm looking globally as to what is gonna be our role globally, because there's certainly a business case to support a growth in that area, especially, like I said, in third world countries that are really starting to develop, so... 

But right now we primarily we are a domestic company. 

Q. Nuclear energy, as we said in the beginning, is not really a consumer product that a consumer would buy.  You said you're doing it basically to raise awareness.  Does that make it difficult to activate your sponsorship?  Are you using Simona and IndyCar to promote what you want to promote?

JOHN HERRON:  You know, it's all about, from my perspective, what we've talked about, is getting people to ask the question.  You know, we wanted someone who's a good role model for our company and our industry.  See, this isn't just about Entergy that we're trying to do here.  This is a nuclear clean energy car that Entergy is taking the lead on this.  We're trying to get more and more of our peers to be a part of this.  It is about trying to get that recognition out there.  It's a very, very safe way, a clean way, and a very cost-efficient way to make electricity. 

If you could just put what I know about nuclear power in everybody's head, we wouldn't be arguing about what's the right thing for our country to do.  Simona is going to help us do that.  She's going to help us with that role model that we're looking for.  Again, we just want people to ask the question:  What's with this nuclear clean air energy car? 

Q. John in closing, should things work out and Simona win on Sunday, talk about how big that would be for the nuclear industry from a PR standpoint.  What would you do then? 

JOHN HERRON:  I don't know what I'd do at this point here.  I'd be so ecstatic for her.  I'd be so proud for her.  She's worked very hard at this.  She's had a tough two weeks.  I tell you, she's a tough young lady.  I don't know what we'd do. 

But we're realistic.  We know she's a good driver.  We have a good car underneath her.  There's a lot of talent out there.  It's more important that she's safe. 

Q. There's a lot of media attention that the winning driver gets.  The winner goes on a big tour. 

JOHN HERRON:  Yeah, that would be great. 

Q. Very good.  Thank you very much for being with us today, John.  I appreciate it.  I think it's an interesting topic.  I wish you the best in getting the word out. 

JOHN HERRON:  Great.  Thanks, Mark. 

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