Nuclear Power and our Energy Future

Published: Apr 20, 2010

Author: Array

Recently, President Barack Obama pledged more than $8 billion in loan guarantees that could help give the United States its first license for a new reactor since the Carter Administration.

Yet the first glimmer of hope for America’s nuclear industry faces both new and familiar challenges.

Despite a commitment for increasing loan guarantees to ramp up the development of new nuclear plants, the administration’s determination to shutter the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain effectively jeopardizes this goal.

In recent years, Washington’s concerns about environmental quality, climate change and energy security have led it to spend billion of dollars to promote renewables like wind and solar power. And while their contribution to the nation’s electricity generation has increased, it is at this time unrealistic to believe we can depend on these resources for more than a small fraction of our total energy needs.

According to a 2007 study by the Energy Information Administration (EIA), wind and solar, which satisfy a mere 3 percent of U.S. electricity needs, require a hefty $23 to $30 per megawatt-hour taxpayer subsidy. Moreover, the U.S. would need to install a wind turbine every 600 feet over 15.5 million acres – roughly enough land to equal the entire state of West Virginia – before we could begin replacing the current generating capacity of our existing nuclear plants. Even if we wanted to take that route, the staggering cost to implement such a policy renders it impractical.

Loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, on the other hand, won’t actually cost taxpayers if we can successfully break through the regulatory gridlock and endless litigation that have frustrated our nuclear energy program for thirty years.

The history of nuclear power in this country, however, makes loan guarantees necessary. Environmental and anti-nuclear extremists have long stonewalled nuclear development by pursuing strategies of litigation and obstruction that has made new plants prohibitively expensive. Between 1973 and 2006, liberal advocacy groups wrapped up the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in over 200 court cases concerning nuclear plant licensing, contributing to the stagnation of new plant development for thirty years.

Similar pressures from the Left have now succeeded in getting the Obama Administration to reverse course on decades of scientific research and broad bipartisan congressional action to build the site at Yucca Mountain, despite more than $10 billion already invested in the project.

The concern that this kind of political obstruction could again end up destroying investments in nuclear power makes it necessary for federal loan guarantees to backstop potential private sector investments to restart nuclear energy development.

A generation ago, America was the world’s leader in energy production because of innovative technologies and a regulatory structure that recognized the importance and economic advantage of our domestic resources. But as these commitments gave way to fear-mongering from the Left, we slowly lost our technological edge to foreign competitors like Japan and France. Today, these countries lead the world in the production of clean, safe and reliable nuclear energy, but it’s not too late for us to catch up.

By completing the storage site at Yucca Mountain, streamlining the application process at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, clearing once and for all the litigious atmosphere that has stymied new plant construction, adapting our tax structure to incentivize investments in nuclear technologies and using the guarantee of the federal government to jump-start a robust nuclear energy program, we can reclaim our place in the world and reduce our dependence on carbon-rich fossil fuels.

Indeed, America will never reach its goals of energy independence and reducing carbon emissions without a sustainable nuclear industry. It’s long past time for the United States to adopt sensible energy policies that embrace every available resource and realize the promise that nuclear technology holds for our energy future.

Issa, a Republican, represents the 49th District Congressional District, which includes Oceanside, Vista, Fallbrook, a portion of San Diego and a portion of Riverside County. He is the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.