If you’re a Democrat or Independent, you may have one prejudice that doesn’t embarrass you a bit: you dislike nuclear power. Gallup polls consistently find that about 59% of Americans overall support the use of nuclear power, but the polls split when party affiliation, gender and household income are taken into account. Important groups of voters are still uneasy about nuclear power and Washington is finding it hard to take a long view.
It’s a prejudice that could be undermining the economy and national security. Nuclear power started off to applause when the first plant opened in 1957, then hit bottom with the Three Mile Island plant emergency shut-down in Pennsylvania in 1979. Since then, nuclear power has been a quiet success here in the US and in a soaring market worldwide. Nuclear power generation of electricity tripled from 1980 to 2008 with an impeccable safety record. In 2008, Department of Energy statistics showed nuclear power provided about 20% of the electricity used by this country every day. Of course, Navy submarines and aircraft carriers have run on specially-designed nuclear reactors for half a century.
Nuclear energy also has a convenient truth – it’s climate-friendly because it does not release carbon into the atmosphere. A typical nuclear plant already plays an important role in what’s called baseload power – the steady electric demand that accounts for most electricity usage. Renewable energy is tantalizing but forms a tiny share of electricity generating capacity. In 2008, coal accounted for 49% of electricity generated, while natural gas provided 21%, nuclear 20%, hydro-electric 6% and other sources such as wind and solar just 4%. Smart grid applications and better technology could push renewables above the 10% line in the future, but the transition will take time.
Nuclear energy will be part of America’s energy requirements for a long time to come. The Department of Energy is already counting on nuclear plants to generate another 10 gigawatts of generating capacity by 2030. If anything, the US may not be moving swiftly enough to evaluate what our nation needs from nuclear power generation. The last new nuclear plant came on line in 1997. Construction on a handful of other plants has been in limbo. Granted, issues such as spent fuel storage remain. But there is also research underway on advanced reactors that run at higher temperatures and leave less waste, for example. New scalable, advanced light water reactors are already on the market. Stalling on the policy debate does little to address the real economic and environmental concerns or to clarify where and how nuclear power can best contribute.
Nuclear power is a global issue, too. France already relies on nuclear plants for 78% of its electricity generation capacity. China aims for 40,000 megawatts of nuclear capacity in the future. India has 15 plants in service, and 8 more under construction. Worldwide, TIME Magazine estimated 180 new nuclear plants will be built in the next decade. There’s little question that nuclear power is essential to meeting global energy demand. Fossil fuels aren’t unlimited and their carbon impact will have to be contained. The risks of nuclear power look much different when set against reports of shrinking Arctic ice packs and inexorable sea rise.
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