The U.S. nuclear industry finds itself in the middle of a good news/bad news story. The good news is that it already provides 20 percent of the nation's electrical power; it's clean, preventing the release of 700 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year; it's gaining support inside the Beltway and beyond; and, as a consequence, it could help improve our energy outlook.
The bad news is that the industry is remarkably small for a country with the energy needs and appetite of the United States. Our country actually went on for decades without ordering a new nuclear power plant. In fact, 112 reactors were operating in America in 1990 while, today, they number just over 100.
Hoping to reverse this trend, Congress and the White House have offered incentives, including subsidies and tax breaks, for the construction of nuclear power plants. Former President George W. Bush said that "to keep pace with our energy needs, experts believe it will be necessary to build an average of three new plants per year, starting in 2015." But is that feasible? Thanks to an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, entrepreneurs and national-security hawks, the answer increasingly appears to be yes. Consider what's happening across the country:
Pete Domenici, former Republican senator from New Mexico, said he considers the surge of new applications as evidence of a "nuclear renaissance."
"We went more than two decades without a single one applying, and we have now over 30," Domenici has observed, noting that the pending applications represent projects potentially capable of powering 30 million U.S. households. This renaissance is partly a function of efforts to streamline the regulatory process. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, for example, offers special-risk insurance to firms that build new nuclear power plants, loan guarantees for clean-energy technologies, and long-term tax credits to qualified nuclear power facilities. Even so, there is no national groundswell of support for nuclear power. CBS News/New York Times polling has found that just 51 percent of respondents approve of building more nuclear power plants, and only 40 percent would approve those plants being built in their communities. This "NIMBY" phenomenon – short for "not in my back yard" – has dogged the nuclear industry for decades. One of its most apparent manifestations has been the battle over transferring and storing spent nuclear fuel from 39 states at Nevada's Yucca Mountain; selecting it took five years of congressional wrangling. More than 20 years later, the Department of Energy finally submitted an 8,600-page license application to the NRC, seeking authorization to build the facility.
Yesterday. Why are Americans so resistant to nuclear power, and what caused the three-decade hiatus from nuclear-plant construction? The answer can be traced to Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, where the failure of feed-water pumps and a partial-core meltdown in March 1979 almost nuked the entire industry in America. After the near-disaster, which caused no deaths or injuries, orders for new U.S. reactors fell from a high of 41 in 1973 to zero. The fact that the 2 million residents of the area were exposed to one-sixth the amount of radiation absorbed in a typical chest X-ray was irrelevant. The damage had already been done – and more was yet to come.
Seven years after Three Mile Island, a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine released huge amounts of radiation. More than two dozen workers died within months of the disaster, thyroid cancer spiked among children in the region, and experts estimate "4,000 radiation-related cancer deaths may eventually be attributed to the Chernobyl accident," according to an NRC report. To be sure, the deaths and long-term effects at Chernobyl are tragic. But the Soviet government was not known for its public-safety record. The disaster at Chernobyl and the averted disaster in Pennsylvania should have served to underscore the differences between U.S. and Soviet nuclear plants, encouraging Americans to keep building safe nuclear power facilities.
Instead, we did something uncharacteristic of Americans: we stopped building and stopped pushing the frontiers of technology. If we had reacted in a similar manner in 1947, when a port explosion in Texas City, Texas, triggered a massive fire at an oil refinery, killing 500 people, we would have turned back to firewood and horsepower.
Three Mile Island and Chernobyl stunted America's nuclear industry. Environmental groups, the news media and Hollywood used the events to turn public opinion against nuclear energy. Many in government simply waved the white flag.
Thus, nuclear power accounts for just 20 percent of U.S. electrical energy, while it supplies 78 percent of France's needs and 50 percent of Sweden's. Energy-hungry China has built nine new reactors since 1991, with plans to accelerate its nuclear-power program. Japan has "the largest commercial nuclear industry in Asia," according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Half of Ukraine's energy comes from the atom, with 11 new reactors coming online by the 2030s. Even the place that bears the scars of Chernobyl recognizes the benefits of nuclear power.
Ukraine is not alone in grasping those benefits. A growing number of environmentalists, who once led the charge against nuclear power, have experienced an epiphany of sorts, owing largely to the minimal atmospheric impact of nuclear energy. In fact, a recent USA Today analysis found that the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, Union of Concerned Scientists, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense are willing "to consider nuclear power as part of a long-term solution to global warming."
Even Patrick Moore, one of the founders of anti-nuke standard-bearer Greenpeace, is now an advocate of nuclear energy. He now co-chairs the Nuclear Energy Institute's Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.
"Greenpeace is against fossil fuel, nuclear and hydroelectric power," Moore said in a recent Wired interview. "Those three technologies produce over 99 percent of world energy. What kind of a path to a sustainable future is that?"
Today. To be sure, the up-front costs of nuclear power are significant; a nuclear reactor now in the planning stages for Maryland may cost $4 billion. But if the United States had kept building nuclear power plants at its pre-Three Mile Island pace, it might have been able to cushion the shock of recent spikes in energy prices.
Energy is the currency of the early 21st century, empowering men such as Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the petrocrats of Saudi Arabia.
"OPEC countries earned an estimated $690 billion from oil exports last year, nearly three times the revenues earned in 2003," then-Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell reported in early 2008. "The increased revenues also have enabled producers like Iran, Venezuela, Sudan and Russia to garner enhanced political, economic and even military advantages."
In this way, energy becomes a weapon. When Chavez wants to hurt the United States, he raises the prospect of selling his oil to China, or using his oil wealth to prop up other regional troublemakers, or buying Russian warplanes. When Iran wants to do likewise, it threatens to close the Straits of Hormuz, funds terrorists in Iraq and Lebanon, and builds its own nuclear plants. When Moscow wants to send a message to its neighbors, it shuts off pipelines into Europe.
Tomorrow. It is in America's best interest to expand its energy-supply options. Nuclear energy is part of the equation, as are hybrid technologies, renewables, conservation strategies and even fossil fuels from right here in North America.
According to a study by the Fraser Institute, an international think tank with locations throughout North America, the United States has "considerable conventional petroleum reserves yet to be developed in Alaska and offshore, and substantial reserves of non-conventional oil and gas, such as coal-bed methane and petroleum associated with shale formations."
In fact, estimates reported by the EIA indicate that the United States has 29.9 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. And that number is growing as new fossil-fuel finds are discovered:
The United States possesses more oil and gas than several of the world's energy-exporting giants, which means it has plenty of options. Along with expanded nuclear energy, they are enough to carry our country, comfortably, into what might be called the "post-petro" economy
It is simply a matter of national will.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Fraser Institute and a contributing editor for The American Legion Magazine.