America is in the midst of an energy revolution that can power our economy to new found levels of growth and prosperity. To get there, we need to expand the harvesting of America’s vast energy resources. As President Obama mulls who will be Secretary of Energy, it is imperative he nominate someone with proven ability and world views to capitalize on this great opportunity.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu has been a strong supporter of nuclear power, believing it essential to address climate change. Under his leadership the United States began building its first new nuclear plants in three decades. He called for expanded uranium mining in the U.S. and using small modular reactors, a new application of nuclear technology.
Secretary Chu’s support for nuclear power continued through the difficulties of the Fukushima accident. U.S. nuclear plants are implementing enhanced safety protocols, further strengthening the industry’s stellar safety record and practices. In more than five decades there has not been a single radiological-related death in the U.S. from commercial nuclear power.
Today, much attention is paid to the economic benefits of abundant, low-cost natural gas obtained by unconventional drilling techniques such as hydraulic fracking. But while this boom has led to increased natural gas use, lower electricity prices and, by replacing coal, the lowest carbon dioxide emissions in two decades, it is not a silver bullet. Nor, by the way, are solar and wind power, which account for barely three percent of electricity generation despite four years of large federal subsidies.
The backbone of America’s electricity supply is coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydroelectric power. We need to grow this diverse mix.
Indeed, natural gas market problems may be emerging.
On February 15, The New York Times reported, “Electricity prices in New England have been four to eight times higher than normal in the last few weeks, as the region’s extreme reliance on natural gas for power supplies has collided with a surge in demand for heating.”
Natural gas could face price spikes for several reasons. With regional droughts, fracking could become expensive and even put on hold. The potential export of large quantities of natural gas could cause price gyrations. And, while regional factors impact prices, natural gas is a commodity influenced by global trends. Furthermore, today’s low natural gas prices resemble those of the late 1990’s, which did not hold.
Some 104 commercial nuclear reactors generate 20 percent of America’s electricity. Nuclear power, however, accounts for two-thirds of the country’s carbon-free generation while also producing no nitrogen, sulphur, particulate, or mercury emissions. A future carbon tax or cap and trade program could be offset by wider use of nuclear power.
Nuclear power uses a large, skilled, and well paid workforce. And the industry makes products that can be exported to friendly countries which are also increasingly turning to nuclear power.
There are five nuclear reactors under construction in the U.S. In addition to the 440 nuclear reactors operating worldwide, 71 are under construction in 16 countries.
In 2011, the U.S. commercial nuclear industries invested $7.6 billion. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates the global nuclear market, including fuel and services, could reach $750 billion within a decade. Every $1 billion in U.S. exports means 5,000 to 10,000 good jobs for Americans.
Nuclear power is a proven, cost effective and clean component of America’s energy infrastructure. For economic and environmental reasons, the next Secretary of Energy should champion its use and expansion.
About the author: Glenn McCullough, Jr., is a former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, America’s largest public power company.
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