President Obama recently announced his support of nuclear power plants smaller than 300 megawatts in size (known as small modular reactors or “SMR”s), as a clean energy source by way of an executive order. This was a good start. However, it is my view that the President’s endorsement for nuclear energy didn’t go nearly far enough. In fact, by not including the entire nuclear sector under the definition of “qualified alternative energy resources”, we may very well threaten our nation’s ability to become truly energy independent or come remotely close to meeting the new U.S. pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28% by 2025. This is why the President should embrace ALL nuclear power, as a clean energy source, not just one sub-group of this industry. Our current fleet of nuclear power plants generates about 63% of all low-carbon/low-emission energy in the U.S. and avoids billions of tons of air emissions. How can this key point be ignored?
Think about this. Today we are surrounded by an increased amount of consumer goods that require being plugged in, recharged and accessible whenever, wherever, 24/7 – from smartphones to bigger TV’s, electric vehicles, and new smart products connecting the “internet of things” (“IoT”). Our modern economy is becoming more and more energy intensive, despite widespread efficiency and conservation efforts. The case for consistent sources of clean baseload power generation, like that supplied by the nuclear sector, is more critical than ever.
I applaud the technological innovation redefining renewables, along with the commercialization of battery storage solutions that should make renewables more competitive. However, renewables still have a long way to go before reaching the power generating levels currently seen in the nuclear industry. So, if clean energy is truly the President’s focus, nuclear energy must be seen as a more credible bridge fuel than natural gas. Burning natural gas for electricity still creates a whole lot of air pollution and carbon emissions. Consider this, even if we switched all coal-fired electrical generation to natural gas in the U.S., we would still emit billions of tons of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every single year.
Nuclear energy can co-exist with renewable energy sources and play a vital role in helping the U.S. more quickly adopt a sustainable, low-carbon, low-air pollution energy landscape. How else does the President expect to meet new, more stringent 2025 climate goals, following the Energy Information Administration (EIA) just reporting that U.S. oil output jumped more in 2014 than in 100 years?
There are a lot of misconceptions about the risks of various forms of energy production, including nuclear. Yet, today’s nuclear industry is vastly different than it was even just a few years ago, including advances in uranium production methods needed to supply today’s nuclear industry. In fact, modern uranium mining is far cleaner and safer than the production of rare earth elements in China that are essential to produce renewable energy right here in the U.S.
This leads me to the topic of energy independence. The U.S. imports roughly 90% of the uranium to fuel our current fleet of nuclear power plants. The same can be said of the rare earth minerals needed to produce renewables, since China enjoys a near-monopoly on their production, as highlighted in a recent 60 Minutes piece. Therefore, declaring our nation energy independent is flawed thinking, especially when nuclear power accounts for nearly 20% of U.S. energy power generation. If we are truly committed to reducing air pollution and producing domestic, reliable, clean energy sources, the President should move to qualify all nuclear power as a clean energy resource.
As for SMRs, I can see why the technology is so appealing, and I’m excited to see the President consider SMR technologies a clean energy solution. But, shouldn’t all nuclear facilities, along with the uranium fuel needed to run those SMRs, receive the same clean energy distinction?