Christine Todd Whitman on Nuclear Power

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman talks about the future of nuclear power in the U.S. post-Fukushima. She is the co-chair of CASEnergy Coalition, a nuclear power advocacy group and the co-chair of the Republican Leadership Council, which supports "fiscally conservative, socially inclusive" candidates

Nuclear Safety

The Associated Press (AP) recently concluded a year-long investigation into the state of power plants in the United States. The report found that radioactive tritium has leaked into the water from corroded underground pipes in three-fourths of the nation’s nuclear plants, including in New Jersey, where tritium has contaminated an aquifer that feeds into Barnegat Bay near the Jersey Shore. The report says that safety standards have been loosened by the government for decades to meet the deteriorating conditions of the aging plants. Whitman said that post-Fukushima people are right to be concerned and ask questions, however she believes the industry is committed to running safe and well-regulated plants.

I know the AP story has raised a lot of concerns and questions, but people need to go to the NRC — the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — and to the nuclear reactor operators themselves to get the answers... If you look at most of those statistics that [the report] is talking about, they go back years, they don’t take into account the changes that have been made, even since 9/11.

The tritium leak into popular swimming body of water Barnegat Bay is reason for concern, said Whitman, but she questioned whether the level of contamination poses a threat to human health. 

The tritium leaks are something about which you have got to be concerned. Even [though]  the AP says none of them have reached drinking water aquifers, it’s still not something you want to see. But they don’t mention the amount of money that has gone into improving and trying to stop that from happening.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently found that while the industry has a voluntary initiative to monitor leaks into underground water sources, the NRC has not evaluated how promptly that system detects such leaks. Without that evaluation, the GAO found no assurance that the ground water detection initiative will detect leaks in a timely fashion. Whitman said that doesn’t mean the voluntary system is inadequate, but rather that the industry needs to do more.

I’ve been a strong believer that voluntary is good, but it doesn’t work unless you have a strong regulatory infrastructure around it that has a constant oversight with some real penalties if you start to get outside of the parameters of what’s acceptable and what’s safe.

Governor Chris Christie and Climate Change

Whitman said she was glad to hear Christie say that he believes climate change to be human-made.

You can argue over whether [the cap and trade system] itself was having the kind of impact that you wanted it to have relevant to reduction… but he is certainly saying that there’s an issue here and that people and our activities are part of that program and we should do something about it. I’m comfortable with that position.

A possible motive for Christie’s move to eliminate cap and trade in his state might be to avoid future charges of being a supporter of the program should he run for president. However Whitman does not think that is the case.

I don’t think Chris Christie is making any of these decisions based on a potential run for the presidency.


Many of the current Republicans deny global warming outright or avoid discussion of climate change. Whitman finds that disappointing. She is a supporter of cap-and-trade as a federal policy.

It worked so well on the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990…. I recognize that carbon is a different animal and it’s more difficult to apply a cap-and-trade system to greenhouse gases, but I think it can be done.

Ground Zero

Many people consider Whitman as EPA administrator declaring the downtown Manhattan area “safe to breathe” on September 18th as part of the legacy of 9/11. An estimated seventy-percent of Ground Zero workers have developed respiratory illnesses as a result of their exposure. Whitman said she does not regret her statement, and that the consequential illness are the result of workers failing to use their respirators.

How can I regret reporting what the science was telling us? There were two different messages that needed to get out. One was that the workers on the pile needed to wear respirators, we said that and reinforced that everyday at EPA and what I said. It was always a bifurcated message. It was ambient air in Lower Manhattan in general was safe to breath. On the pile they needed respirators.

Government officials who appeared at the sight without masks may have played a part in creating a belief that the air was safe to breathe.

 Any time you’re seen down there without, for whatever reason, it did reinforce that confusion of should you wear it or shouldn’t you wear it.

Gay Marriage

Whitman said the Republican Leadership Council is still active and working to expand to include other similar groups. The group is not taking a stance on gay marriage, though Whitman said personally she thinks the state should not have a say in the issue one way or the other.

Marriage is a religious thing. If you have a church or a synagogue or a mosque that wants to marry a gay couple, so be it, that’s fine. But that’s the religion part of it, and I think you ought to separate church and state.