What U.S. Energy Policy Needs: Less Coal, More Uranium

Looking back now, it's easy to see that the biggest energy policy mistake the U.S. made in the 20th century was the failure to wean the country off oil -- particularly imported oil -- as a transportation fuel.

As the recent popular uprising in Egypt and other protests across the Middle East have reminded Americans, any disruption in the system that sends roughly 2 million barrels of crude oil a day from the Middle East to the U.S. would send gasoline prices soaring. Think $5 a gallon, and that's assuming there's any gas at all in your area.

But the nation's second-biggest energy policy blunder was its failure to fully deploy nuclear technology for electric power generation in the 1980s and 1990s. No new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. in more than 30 years. Of the 104 nuclear plants currently operating domestically, all began service before 1980.

America's shift away from nuclear power stemmed, in part, from an excessive and -- in retrospect -- imprudent overreaction to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979. It was a terrifying event, but it caused no deaths or injuries. Much of the rest of the blame for our long nuclear drought can be laid at the feet of an environmental movement that gained momentum and a stronger lobbying voice in the 1970s.

Today, with the world under pressure to reduce its emissions of climate-warming CO2 -- the U.S. is reviving its pursuit of nuclear energy, although a segment of the environmental lobby remains opposed.

Decades Behind

To say the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do in the nuclear power race doesn't come close to the reality. Consider these statistics, based on Nuclear Energy Agency data: France gets 77% of its electricity from nuclear plants; Sweden, 42%; Switzerland, 39%; South Korea, 37%; and Finland, 30%. The U.S.? A mere 20%.

Another reason the country didn't fully deploy nuclear power technology late last century related to concerns about the radioactive waste it produces. Opponents have frequently cited waste processing as a barrier to nuclear power, but France has had in place an effective nuclear reprocessing program at COGEMA La Hague and Tricastin for decades.

Nuclear power never went out of style in France, which is why that nation is decades ahead of the U.S. in energy self-sufficiency,The New York Times reported. France launched an ambitious nuclear power program decades ago because it lacks both oil and abundant coal.

If the U.S. chooses to not reprocess nuclear waste, Nevada's Yucca Mountain (or some other storage facility at an out-of-the-way site to be named later) could be pressed into use. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a proponent of green and renewable energy, has often noted the odd U.S. stance regarding nuclear power compared to our democratic cousins in France. The U.S. is too afraid to store nuclear waste in the middle of the desert at Yucca Mountain while French mayors campaign to have nuclear reactors built in their towns to create jobs.

"Scalable" Nuclear Plants

One out-of-date argument against nuclear power concerns its cost, but new, refined nuclear plants based on simple modular designs have eliminated that concern, The Economist magazine reported. Further, modularity allows plant builders to incrementally add power generation if electricity demand increases. Modularity, with its smaller initial construction costs, also shortens the break-even timetable for utilities.

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A final anti-nuclear argument points to natural gas, as well as wind, solar power and other renewable energy sources, as better alternatives to coal. Provided the price of natural gas remains competitive, this abundant, cleaner fossil fuel will continue to displace dirty coal to power our electric plants. However, while the percent of U.S. electricity supplied by wind and solar power will continue to increase in the decade ahead, barring a technological breakthrough, neither will be able to supply enough power to displace dirty coal and provide a bridge to potentially cleaner, more-advanced energy technologies 20 to 30 years from now.

Nuclear power could be that bridge, but it will to take a national commitment to achieve it. The U.S. now has 104 licensed nuclear plants operating, or about one for every 2.9 million people. In contrast, France has 58 nuclear plants, or about one for every 1.1 million citizens.

Of the dozen or so new nuclear power plants currently under construction in the U.S., perhaps four to eight may be approved and come on-line between 2016 and 2018, The Economist reported. Globally, about 55 nuclear plants are under construction, including more than 20 in China.

Adding just eight new U.S. nuclear plants by 2018 is grossly insufficient, either to reduce carbon emissions or to meet the nation's growing demand for electricity. The U.K., with one-fifth the population of the U.S., has announced plans to fast-track the construction of 10 plants.

How Can the U.S. Stay Left Out?

The Obama administration, which in February 2010 announced loan guarantees for two new nuclear reactors in Georgia Power's Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant complex, supports the expansion of nuclear power, and President Obama has called for a bipartisan energy and climate bill to create incentives that will make clean energy profitable.

However, to substantially increase the number of plants -- say, by about 20 before 2020 -- a comprehensive loan guarantee program is needed. But a new federal program of that size appears to be a long shot in today's austerity-oriented Congress, where program cutbacks and belt-tightening are the priority.

Still, it seems almost implausible -- indeed, irrational -- that technology and innovation powerhouse U.S. would pioneer a revolutionary technology like nuclear power and then walk away from it when it's refined, leaving other nations to apply it to their social, economic and environmental benefit.

France, China, and the U.K., among others, recognize that nuclear power represents a win-win on climate change and self-sufficiency grounds. It's time the U.S. realized it as well, and started making up for decades of lost time -- and energy.