About the author: Glenn McCullough, Jr., is a former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, America’s largest public power company.
On February 9 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission did something it has not done in 34 years: approve a license (two in fact) to build two advanced nuclear reactors. For a consortium of utilities constructing two advanced nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle on the Georgia-South Carolina border, this means major strides generating 2,200 megawatts of new electricity, enough for approximately one million homes and businesses.
Amid all the talk about a new energy policy and clean energy in recent years, the NRC’s decision is perhaps the most important action any federal government entity has taken. It is the rubber meeting the road.
Nuclear energy is a clean, American-made, safe product that cannot be outsourced. And it is already proven to work on a large scale, at very attractive and largely predictable costs. Unlike wind and solar power which still account for less than five percent of America’s electricity, nuclear generates nearly 20 percent of the country’s power.
Nuclear energy, which is produced in a culture where safety is the highest priority, has continuously proven to be safe. In 50 years of commercial nuclear power operation in the United States, no one has died a radiological related death. In fact, a long-term study by Columbia University of 35,000 workers in the nuclear power industry found that they live longer and have lower cancer rates than the rest of us.
Despite significant differences between Fukushima and U.S. nuclear power plants, many lessons are being learned from Fukushima to further improve safety at U.S. plants. And the technology is at hand, from state-of-the-art developments by Westinghouse, Toshiba, and General Electric, to make even more efficient, safer reactors to complement the 104 commercial reactors now operating safely.
In fact, because nuclear power does not emit the toxic substances that fossil fuel plants do, and provides far more reliable electricity generation than renewable power sources, nuclear is arguably the safest, most reliable form of power today.
Some worry that loan guarantees on the Vogtle and other new plants will harm taxpayers, creating a new “Solyndra” situation. The odds of this, however, are remote for several reasons.
First, nuclear power is a proven technology and has a proven revenue stream. In fact, before the taxpayer would be liable for costs, the large well-capitalized companies behind the project would all first be responsible for the costs.
Next to the government and the financial services sectors, the largest user of capital is electricity generators. With guarantees that cost of capital becomes lower and is in turn passed on in the form of lower rates to customers.
To truly stimulate America’s economy for long-term, sustained, economic growth, we need to expand our energy infrastructure. The NRC should now look to approve advanced reactor license applications at 11 other sites that would result in the construction of 16 advanced reactors creating thousands of jobs. This would help the U.S. catch up to the rest of the world, where 63 new reactors are currently under construction with 156 on order or planned.
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