U.S. reaches consensus on nuclear power: Obama calls for construction of a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants

By Christine Todd Whitman
The Korea Herald
March 4, 2010

At a critical time in the energy policy debate, faced with the twin concerns of climate change and rising energy demand, the Obama administration and environmental organizations such as the Pew Center for Climate Change and the Environmental Defense Fund have reached a surprising consensus. Despite past reservations about nuclear energy, they now acknowledge that the United States’ most significant carbon-free electricity source has a role to play in an economically sound, low-carbon energy policy for America.

The logic behind this shift in thinking on nuclear energy is understandable when you consider that, increased conservation and efficiency measures notwithstanding, energy demand is still projected to jump 23 percent by 2030, while environmental concerns of climate change reach a critical mass.

In the aftermath of the Copenhagen climate change conference, nuclear energy is uniquely positioned to address the international community’s major concerns — meeting rising electricity demand 24/7 in a cost-efficient way, with minimal greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear energy cannot do it alone — but it is a vital part of the solution. Our challenges call for a portfolio approach that includes and favors all emissions lowering technologies such as solar, thermal, wind and geothermal. Yet of all the virtually carbon-free electric technologies, nuclear energy accounts for by far the largest market share with the highest operating efficiency. The 104 reactors producing power around the United States account for nearly 75 percent of all carbon-free electricity produced.

As knowledge about nuclear energy’s environmental benefits has grown, so has its appeal. In fact, over the past few years, a diverse and broad-based coalition of support has formed behind this mainstay energy source.

Some 59 percent of Americans polled by Gallup last year said they support nuclear energy as one way to meet the nation’s electricity needs. For the first time in three decades, in a state leading the clean energy movement, a majority of California residents surveyed in 2008 approved building nuclear plants in their state.

A survey commissioned last year by Women Impacting Public Policy found that 71 percent of women business owners believe nuclear energy should play an important role in America’s energy future, compared with 61 percent support from women in general.

I believe that the United States has reached a new consensus on nuclear energy because there is an open and fact-based debate about the economic and environmental benefits of nuclear energy, which addresses previous concerns about waste and cost.

U.S. President Barack Obama highlighted nuclear energy in his State of the Union address to Congress on Jan. 27, noting that “to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.” His budget proposed tripling the funds available for nuclear loans guarantees to $54.5 billion in the coming fiscal year and on Feb. 16 he announced the specific loan guarantee for two nuclear reactors to be built at a Southern Company plant in Burke, Georgia — the first in more than three decades. These new reactors are expected to generate power for approximately 1.4 million people.

Obama’s nuclear line item more than triples the original amount of loan guarantee volume for new nuclear plants, in response to the Department of Energy’s request. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has said that this increased budget funding could support 7-10 new reactors.

This move has benefits for the economy as well as the environment, bringing significant job creation. Each new reactor brings an estimated $430 million a year in total output for the local community, according to a report by the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a national grassroots group that I co-chair with Dr. Patrick Moore. The two Southern Company reactors are expected to employ 850 people, while creating the reactors will create 3,000 construction jobs. Moreover, additional new reactors will also reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing capability for nuclear energy components.

The increase in loan guarantee volume will also raise the number of new nuclear plant projects that can participate in the federal government’s clean energy loan guarantee program. This is a fiscally sound policy as well — it is important to remember that loan guarantees are not an appropriation and, therefore, do not represent an outlay of taxpayer dollars when projects are successfully completed. Loan guarantees are designed to boost investor confidence so that private funds can be used to fund these projects.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently told members of Congress that nuclear energy is “a fundamental component of the energy mix,” and called for a coordinated effort both to deal with spent fuel management on a national level and to close the nuclear fuel cycle through support of recycling technologies.

Secretary Chu is joined fore mostly by President Obama and also by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner in supporting nuclear expansion as part of the administration’s energy policy — in order to create clean energy jobs and meet rising energy demand, while also adhering to climate change policy guidelines with regard to emission reductions goals. I applaud their commitment in this area that is absolutely vital for our future.

Despite the challenges that the Administration currently faces in Washington with congressional gridlock on the health care debate, I believe this is one issue that can find bipartisan support. Last fall in Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall joined Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in concluding that nuclear energy “has to be part of the solution” to meet our electricity demand in an environmentally responsible way.

Outside of Washington, news about nuclear energy’s economic benefits has led to a wave of policy reforms, as state leaders, grappling with the recession, seek to position their states to compete for one or more of 25 reactors under consideration nationwide.

For instance, the new reactor that Florida Progress Energy is seeking to build at its Levy nuclear plant near Tallahassee would bring as many as 2,400 construction jobs, a much-needed boost in a state that has lost more than 250,000 construction jobs over the past two years.

Little wonder that Florida is among three states that have introduced legislation allowing nuclear energy to be included among technologies that can help meet clean or alternative energy standards. On top of these proposed reforms, 10 states have passed policies instituting some form of cost recovery assurance for nuclear plant construction. And of the 12 states with some kind of moratorium or restriction on new nuclear capacity, seven have recently brought the issue up for debate. At least three states have passed legislation to lift such bans in at least one house of their legislature since 2008.

The extreme storms in the northeastern United States this winter have no doubt distorted the need to address our need for clean energy in general. The cold temperatures have given opportunity for climate change skeptics to cast further doubt on the notion that “global warming” is indeed occurring. I have long said that calling what is happening simply “global warming” is misleading, as there will be many different changes along the way including periods of colder temperatures. This semantic debate is important. Using the term “climate change” rather than “global warming” prevents people like Congressman Jim Inhofe from being able to claim that this is all a hoax.

Scientists have long predicted that one of the consequences of climate change will be more frequent and more severe storms. They cannot predict where and when they will occur, but the extreme magnitude of them reflects climate change. And let’s not forget, even while Washington D.C. shoveled out from two blizzards in as many weeks, 10 of the last 11 years were the warmest on record — that should tell us something.

Human activities are exacerbating natural phenomena, making us part of the problem, but the earth and its climate has been changing since it was formed. Because of human activity, things are changing faster than nature or humans can adapt and the sooner we start taking steps to slow things, the better off we will be — and nuclear is an essential component of that action.

Aside from the climate change debate, nuclear brings benefits in addition to the environmental ones by reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil and creating jobs. Coupled with being clean and safe, the combination of factors is what makes nuclear so beneficial.

Administration support, coupled with growing bipartisan support in Congress, demonstrates the consensus forming behind the nuclear industry resurgence needed to ensure energy security in the U.S. Policymakers, environmentalists, business owners and citizens are signaling that the debate over nuclear energy has undergone a significant shift. The question is no longer “if” nuclear energy should play a role in the national energy portfolio, but how large a role should it play. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, says the nation will need 187 new reactors by 2050 in order to meet greenhouse gas reductions mandated by legislation passed in 2009 by the House of Representatives.
This question does not have a simple answer. It will require the attention of a broad array of stakeholders and policymakers. Yet ultimately, the mere fact that they are trying to answer this question is proof that a new nuclear energy consensus has formed.