If anyone knows clean and green energy it is former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, an unusual elected politician who also has a background as a public utility commissioner and served as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency a decade ago.

Nuclear energy needs to stay at its current 20% share of total electricity generation, Whitman told Breaking Energy during a swing through New York. One of the rare governors who has kept a high profile since leaving the administration, she now runs Whitman Strategy Group in New Jersey and Washington, DC and also serves as co-chair of the CASEnergy Coalition.

We’re very good about saying no to things in this country

CASEnergy is a grassroots group that lays out the case for nuclear energy as part of a “clean and green” energy strategy and targets states and localities where existing or new nuclear power are set to become part of the public debate. They are particularly active in the South and Southwest, where power demand is surging, Whitman said.

Whitman is up to date on the operations of nuclear plants, as well as the policy and regulations that drive them, and says that the industry needs to do a better job of communicating – though she acknowledged that talking about safety measures often intensifies rather than allays concerns.

Facing Fukushima

The US nuclear industry will change in response to Fukushima, Whitman said, with new safety regulations and operational adjustments guaranteeing the accident, which caused the Japanese nuclear power plant to enter an ongoing crisis state, wouldn’t be repeated in the US.

But she warned that countries like Germany, which have taken a strong stance against nuclear since the Fukushima accident, are not setting an example the US should follow. Uranium supplies that aren’t domestic come from reliable exporters like Canada and Australia, she emphasized, whereas Germany’s decision to replace all of its nuclear units put it even more at the mercy of large natural gas delivery from Russia.

Americans are well-informed on nuclear power and understand that Fukushima was an exceptional occurrence, Whitman said. Getting the facts and information to people about nuclear energy is her mission at CASEnergy, she said, to help get past the fact that “we’re very good about saying no to things in this country.”

Proceeding As Permitted

Most of the new nuclear capacity in the US will be built at existing facilities she said, echoing the comments of a former Democratic governor from Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, at yesterday’s REFF Wall Street conference.

The permitting process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been updated to allow utilities to submit the design, building plans, maintenance, operation and permitting for their planned nuclear facilities at the same time.

“They still jump through all the same hoops,” she told Breaking Energy, but the process isn’t as expensive and doesn’t lead to lengthy or crippling lawsuits.

New plants create jobs and economic development in their areas, and new alliances between community colleges and power companies that support special training programs for operations at nuclear plants are so attractive they have waiting lists. Jobs in the nuclear industry pay well, Whitman points out, and communities where nuclear plants are located are usually supportive of operations there because “they see the safety at work.”

The Road To 2012

In a much-used phrase in the energy business, Whitman stressed the need for a national energy policy. She didn’t have much hope for passage of an energy policy before the 2012 round of elections, she said, but she expects sound bites and partisanship to dominate the race.

A rare Republican who stands up for carbon emissions pricing and defends the role of the EPA, she expressed disappointment that environmental regulations have become a punching bag in politics, blamed for job losses.

“Environmental issues are used to feed the base,” she said.

Nuclear is an essential part of the “clean and green” strategy that should replace a sole focus on renewable fuels, she emphasizes, underlining the US will need all the electricity it can get.