By Christine Todd Whitman and Ron Kirk
The Hill
April 25, 2014

As we recognize Earth Day this week, we are reminded that it is more than a day on the calendar, it is a turning point when Americans came together and said, “We can do better.”

On the first Earth Day, in 1970, many of the most basic environmental standards that we take for granted today were not yet in place. There were no controls on toxic and harmful forms of air pollution. Weak restrictions allowed dumping of chemicals into our lakes and streams. Simply put, America’s environment was vastly different than today—for the worse.

In fact, it wasn’t until landmark environmental legislation such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act that we realized simply controlling pollution wasn’t enough. We needed sources of energy that did not emit any air pollution.

Since those early Earth Days, nuclear energy and other carbon-free sources have expanded our baseload power and now produce about one-third of America’s electricity. Among those, nuclear energy is our country’s largest source of clean-air electricity—producing more than 60 percent of all carbon-free power.

In 1970, before the Middle East oil embargo forever changed our energy landscape, nuclear energy supplied just 2 percent of our electricity. Today, it supplies nearly 20 percent. In the process, energy companies essentially eliminated oil as a source of electricity generation and at the same time prevented immeasurable air pollution from spewing into our atmosphere.

Today, America operates 100 commercial reactors in 31 states. With 24/7 production, these facilities generate electricity when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. America’s decades-long leadership in nuclear energy means that every year, we avoid the emission of 570 million metric tons of carbon pollution. This is essentially the same amount of carbon emitted by almost all U.S. passenger cars.

Preventing greenhouse gases is not the only benefit of nuclear energy. It is also completely free of air pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that contribute to smog, acid rain, and asthma. Whether you are concerned about the long-term health of our planet or the quality of the air we breathe every day – nuclear energy is essential to our clean energy mix.

As our economy has transformed and our environmental challenges have changed, the industry is evolving. Nuclear energy facilities are more efficient and safer than ever, and new designs like small modular reactors hold the promise of scalable, more affordable electricity.

Since that first Earth Day, our commitment to environmental stewardship has grown dramatically. As developing nations move to clean up their environments, nuclear energy technologies, developed here in America, will lead the way.

Just like the creation of Earth Day 44 years ago, bettering the planet while embracing the opportunity to boost the economy and job creation is something that people from all ideological stripes can agree.

Whitman is the former governor of New Jersey and EPA administrator under President George W. Bush. Kirk is the former U.S. Trade Representative under Preident Obama and the former mayor of Dallas, Texas. Whitman and Kirk are co-chairs of the Clean and Safe (CASEnergy) Coalition, a national grassroots organization that supports the increased use of nuclear energy to ensure an affordable, environmentally clean, reliable and safe supply of electricity.