Nation’s Energy Choice: Nuclear Prosperity or Renewable Decline

Published July 13, 2010

The United States is clearly falling behind many countries in our nuclear world, but all is not lost. We still know how to operate reactors better than anyone else. Our fleet of 104 plants is operational 90 percent of the time. No other nation even comes close. France, for all its experience, is still at 80 percent. Other countries are even lower.

Reasons for Concern
We still understand the technology better than anyone else in the world, but our national and state governments have placed so many obstacles in the development path we aren’t allowed to build reactors anymore. That is a serious problem.

There are several reasons for concern. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), one of the Senate’s most ardent supporters of nuclear energy, reports there are three significant areas we must address:

Nuclear Power for Vehicles
First, there’s energy importation. The United States already spends $300 billion per year importing two-thirds of our oil from other countries. If we continue to refrain from building new nuclear power plants, or start depending on other countries to build our reactors and supply us with fuel, we’re going to be importing even more of our energy than we do now.

The best way to reduce oil imports, aside from ramping up domestic production, will be to use electricity to power cars and trucks. At first we can plug our electric vehicles in at night, when there is much unused electricity. After that, we should ramp up our nuclear production to meet the increased demand. “We can’t have Americans going to bed every night hoping the wind will blow so they can start their cars in the morning,” Alexander notes.

Innovation, Weapons Proliferation
Second, there’s technological leadership. The United States produces 25 percent of all the wealth in the world. Most of that has been driven by new technologies. We were the birthplace of the telephone, the electric light, the automobile, the assembly line, radio, television, and the computer. But nuclear energy—perhaps the greatest scientific advance of the 20th century—is passing us by.

The 21st century is going to run on clean, cheap, greenhouse-gas-free nuclear power. How can we criticize India and China for not reducing their carbon emissions when we refuse to adopt the best technology ourselves?

Third, there’s weapons proliferation. In the 1970s we gave up on nuclear reprocessing in the hope that by not dealing with plutonium we would prevent nuclear weapons from spreading around the world. That has turned out to be an unwise decision. France, Britain, Russia, Canada, and Japan went right on reprocessing, and no one has stolen plutonium from them.

Instead, rogue nations such as North Korea and Pakistan have found their own ways to develop nuclear weapons. The technology of bomb-making is no big secret anymore.

By reneging on world leadership in nuclear technology we have left the field to others. Right now the Russians are building a commercial reactor for U.S.-hating Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. In addition, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal that his office has uncovered evidence Iran may be providing Venezuela with missile technology.

Relying on Foreign Energy
The U.S. penchant for government impeding nuclear power risks making the nation unnecessarily dependent on foreign energy.

If we move toward a nuclear-based economy and have to import 70 percent of the technology and equipment, how are any better off than when we’re importing two-thirds of our oil? We’ll just be creating jobs for steelworkers in Japan and China instead of in the United States.

Also, if we don’t move toward a nuclear-powered economy but instead try to reduce power plant emissions through hopeless alternatives such as wind power, solar power, and conservation, we’ll be sending American jobs overseas as companies emigrate in search of cheaper energy.

Nuclear Renaissance Possible
To ensure we have enough cheap, clean, reliable electricity in this country to create high-quality, high-tech jobs, Alexander favors having the United States double its production of nuclear power by building 100 nuclear reactors in 20 years. This nuclear strategy makes far better sense than the aforementioned hopeless alternatives, for several reasons.

First, nuclear power currently provides 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity, while wind and solar provide 4 percent.

Second, nuclear plants operate 90 percent of the time, while wind and solar operate about one third of the time.

Third, even the Obama administration’s Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, says nuclear plants are safe and that used nuclear fuel can be safely stored on site for 40-60 years while we figure out the best way to recycle it.

Fourth, millions of windmills and hundreds of thousands of square miles of land would be required to make a serious dent in our energy requirements with wind power. Producing 20 percent of our electricity from wind, as the Obama administration proposes, is a joke. As an alternative, 100 new nuclear plants could be built mostly on existing sites, preserving open spaces for nature and wildlife.

Activists Preying on Fears
Opponents of nuclear power continue to prey on mythical fears of disaster. But if we want safe, reliable, cost-effective, no-carbon electricity, we can no longer ignore the wisdom of the rest of the world.

The real cause for fear is this: We could wake up one cloudy, windless day when the light switch doesn’t work and discover we’ve forfeited our capacity to lead the world because we avoided using nuclear power, a problem-solving technology we invented.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.