Nuclear power has the potential to emerge globally in the coming years. It’s incontrovertible: Honest efforts to fight climate change and air pollution will absolutely depend on nuclear energy. Moreover, achieving real energy independence will depend on nuclear energy. That makes these two goals very much intertwined.
The U.S. has greatly benefited from a shale revolution that has yielded billions of barrels of oil and gas. This has brought enormous economic benefits to America and made our nation less dependent on foreign sources of energy. However, there is another key consideration: taking greater responsibility in providing cleaner energy to the world. I’m fully expecting the U.S. government to lead by example by becoming more proactive in addressing air pollution and carbon emissions. This will help drive increased use of renewables. But it also must lead to the U.S. recommitting to modern nuclear power in a big way.
This is a notion that actually appears to be taking root. For example, the White House recently recognized that nuclear energy must be a “vibrant component of the U.S. clean energy strategy.” The Department of Energy launched Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear to support advanced nuclear designs with a clearer and faster path toward commercialization, something that should further solidify the role nuclear power will play in the president’s new Clean Power Plan.
Additionally, after much political wrangling, President Obama has officially rejected the Keystone XL oil pipeline plan. That should be followed up with additional, tangible backing for existing and future nuclear power plants, with fuel produced from our domestic uranium industry. As recent reports show, the U.S. is more than 90 percent dependent on foreign sources of uranium, and nearly 25 percent of uranium used in U.S. reactors comes from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, this energy dependence is exacerbated by government policies that often stifle the advancement of our domestic uranium industry.
Nevertheless, public moves by Washington in recent weeks that support the nuclear industry are very encouraging. Nuclear power currently provides 63 percent of U.S. low-carbon electricity and remains the only low-carbon, low-emission source of baseload electricity that realistically can be expanded on a sufficiently large scale to replace pollution-emitting coal and natural gas power plants. While cheap natural gas has played a role in reducing air pollution, nuclear energy is a cleaner option. Moreover, there is no guarantee that natural gas prices will remain near 40-year lows. If we are serious about cutting air pollution, meeting our 2020 carbon targets, and also becoming energy independent, nuclear energy and domestic uranium production cannot be ignored.
Perhaps there could be a major effort by the utility sector — encouraged by the government’s growing recognition of the value of nuclear energy — to maintain and upgrade, rather than close, existing nuclear power plant infrastructure.
Countries like China, India, and South Korea see what lies ahead, and there are hundreds of billions of dollars lining up for new nuclear projects around the world. It would be a shame to see the U.S. further surrender its leadership role in the growing nuclear sector.