By Christine Todd Whitman
Sun Sentinel
27 October, 2011

A dominating factor in Florida’s double-digit unemployment is a significant drop in construction activity. All across our nation, home starts and manufacturing are down and we are losing our competitive edge in technologies that America once dominated.

Energy is a sector where American still maintains a technology leadership role, but we are in danger of losing ground to China, South Korea, Germany and other global competitors. Maintaining and expanding our leadership in energy development is good for our national security, will jump start manufacturing and will put hundreds of thousands of workers back on the job.
As someone who has led the effort to address the clean energy challenges facing our country on the federal and state level, I know that it can be difficult to get people to focus on the solutions that are right in front of us.

Today, I am a co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which has helped raise awareness of job-training programs in the growing nuclear energy industry so displaced workers or young professionals and craftsmen just entering the job market are aware of the great number of long-term, high-paying jobs becoming available within the nuclear energy sector due both to retirements and expansion.

Nuclear energy will continue to play a vital role in America’s clean energy future. It already produces 20 percent of our electricity, and will be an important option as our country transitions to a low-carbon energy portfolio while meeting a 24-percent increase in electricity demand forecasted by 2035. Nuclear energy produces no air pollution or greenhouse gases during the production of electricity.

Few people understood that the country gets more than 70 percent of its emissions-free electricity from nuclear energy. And fewer still know that each nuclear energy facility creates hundreds of jobs for local communities, along with $430 million in related economic activity each year.

As these facts came to light, Americans’ support for nuclear energy reached all-time highs in recent years. Even with the accident in Japan grabbing national headlines, 62 percent of Americans favor the use of nuclear energy, according to a September poll by Bisconti Research/GfK Roper. Moreover, 82 percent say we should learn the safety lessons from Japan and continue to build advanced nuclear energy facilities to help meeting growing U.S. electricity demand.

One element in our public conversations about nuclear energy that is clear: the more people learn about nuclear energy’s economic and environmental benefits, the more they acknowledged that decades-old fear mongering about nuclear energy safety had failed to stay current with continuous industry improvements.

Unfortunately, the same people who stoked such fears more than 30 years ago have seized on this year’s events at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan as a wedge to derail nuclear energy’s growth. They are trying to convince Americans that what happened in Japan could be repeated here at any of our nation’s 104 nuclear energy facilities.

Let’s bring some sunlight to this conversation. America’s nuclear energy industry is one of the most highly regulated industries in the world and operates at world-class reliability and safety. Sixteen of the best operating reactors in the world are U.S. reactors, according to World Association of Nuclear Operations statistics. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent agency that oversees the industry, is recognized globally as the best nuclear energy regulator and is emulated by other governments. Multiple onsite NRC inspectors have unfettered access to every nuclear energy facility, with 100% access to every worker, email, files and safety system 365 days a year without prior notice.

Over the years, operators have built in layer upon layer of safety precautions to make sure all materials are safely contained inside the advanced technology of a nuclear facility. What’s more, they constantly plan for the unexpected by making sure their facilities can withstand extreme natural events, deter a terrorist attack or mitigate operator error. In the months since the incident in Japan, U.S. nuclear energy providers have opened their doors to independent experts and scientists to inspect every aspect of their facilities, to ensure they are protected against previously unforeseen events.

Importantly, industry already has taken steps to fortify safety and preparedness programs based on early lessons learned from the Japan accident. With the NRC reviewing permits for building new reactors in the Southeast, the lessons they are learning from Japan are informing how future nuclear energy facilities will be designed and built. Next-generation reactors are in the preliminary phases of a multi-year licensing process across the country, including four in Florida. It’s important that Florida residents know that these new facilities will incorporate the lessons learned from Japan, bringing an even higher degree of safety along with thousands of much-needed construction and operational jobs and reliable, low-carbon electricity for decades.

The industry continues to retroactively fit its existing facilities with the latest technology. In 2009 alone, the U.S. nuclear industry invested about $6.5 billion to upgrade plant systems. Continuous upgrades have always been the standard for U.S. nuclear energy facilities for many reasons, but none more important than protecting the health and safety of the public and plant workers.

And by enhancing the efficiency of their nuclear generation facilities, electricity companies throughout the United States are saving their customers billions of dollars and eliminating millions of tons of greenhouse gases. Likewise, NextEra is working to achieve these benefits by upgrading its equipment at its Turkey Point and St. Lucie facilities. These projects will also create thousands of new jobs for Florida workers.

We can’t eliminate all risk from the production of energy, but we can be vigilant toward reducing it. It’s going to take work, but I believe the American people recognize the value of working to expand a domestic industry that provides energy and national security benefits, economic growth and environmental protection.

Christine Todd Whitman is the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and former New Jersey governor. She is now co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a national grassroots coalition funded by the nuclear industry which supports the inclusion and expansion of nuclear power as part of a sustainable clean energy portfolio.