The U.S. Should Lead the Way in Nuclear Energy

By 2030 it is estimated that U.S. energy demands will increase by one-third, topping out at 134 quadrillion Btu, with primary energy demand growth in petroleum and electricity sectors.

With ever escalating gas prices affecting our daily lives, these predictions are sparking alarm in the American public even before the effects at the pump. And based on recent Congressional activity, presidential speeches, and mounting politicization, the impending energy crisis, both domestically and globally, appears to finally be attracting some staying power.

With an increased awareness of the political and security risk of foreign oil dependence, the American public is beginning to recognize that a reliable energy supply is the foundation of sustained economic growth and prosperity into the 21st century. Given the fact that global energy demand is expected to more than double by 2050, the reality of developing a diverse energy portfolio, encouraging technological advancements, and making energy policy a global imperative is emerging.

Our challenge is to fully recognize the impending crisis -- and to guard against it by embracing technological advancements in the energy sector. Surprisingly, a major part of the solution might be an old technology: nuclear energy. Despite all the “conventional wisdom” on nuclear power, it is high time we recognize and accept the role that nuclear energy can, and indeed, must play in the world’s future.

We must begin to develop methods, ideas, and technology to protect against the dangers associated with it while exploiting its considerable advantages. To continue to take an abolitionist stand on nuclear power not only severely limits our options, it ignores the reality that most countries will pursue nuclear energy -- both friend and foe alike.

It is time for the U.S. to reassess nuclear energy as a tool in the sensible need to diversify our energy portfolio and to meet escalating energy demands in developing countries without putting additional strain on global energy resources. We must do so in a manner that promotes global energy security and upholds established non-proliferation policy principles. New technology, new policies and new global consortia can all contribute to the revival of nuclear energy as a viable, safe and secure energy source.

Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace and former adversary of nuclear energy now turned vocal proponent of the ‘nuclear option,’ explained in a recent op-ed that while other energy options exist, it’s all too clear that nuclear energy remains the only feasible option for the future.

Wind and solar power are intermittent, unpredictable and inherently uneconomical, thus limiting their capacity to replace mega power sources such as coal, nuclear or hydroelectric. Even natural gas – a fossil fuel – is consistently too expensive and its price often too volatile to risk justifying large investments. It is an unfortunate fact that hydroelectric resources are built up to capacity at this point.

Therefore, the next logical step is a reevaluation of nuclear energy -- a fuel based system of uranium, which is both abundant and inexpensive.

However, based on the nightmare stories of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, many are concerned that nuclear facilities are neither safe nor secure. Rightfully, it should be noted that nuclear energy is not without its share of problems -- including industry expense, potential social/environmental risks, vulnerability to terrorist attacks, and its inherent capacity to facilitate the creation of nuclear weapons.

But this is all part of the technological revolution -- and these concerns are not insurmountable. As we further investigate the ‘nuclear option,’ we must methodically confront each of these issues in terms of new technologies, new safeguards and new international initiatives that address these realistic concerns, as well as concerns about impending decisions of other countries to pursue nuclear energy (including third world countries).

Today, while over 130 new nuclear reactors are being built, planned, or under consideration world-wide, the U.S. has not ordered a reactor for decades, despite an existing fleet of over 100 reactors -- what was once considered a resolute and insightful move to a nuclear future.

The U.S. should be in a position to influence how these facilities are designed, constructed, and operated: safely, with proper waste disposal, and proliferation-resistant. Yet, we are not. The U.S. must expand its nuclear energy capacity by building reactors at home and abroad, develop innovations for recycling nuclear fuel and reducing nuclear waste, and pursue more detailed and effective non-proliferation arrangements.

If the co-founder of Greenpeace, a man who once believed that “nuclear energy was synonymous with nuclear holocaust” can do an about-face on the ‘nuclear option,’ then it is time the U.S. government took nuclear energy off the taboo list as well.

If we don’t engage in this conversation now with the rest of the world, the risks associated with nuclear technology will escalate and the U.S. will not be in a position to play a leading role in shaping the future of nuclear technology.

Olivia Albrecht is the John Tower National Security Fellow with the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. Ms. Albrecht researches international relations and national security issues, with a focus on the ‘Islamofascist’ phenomenon. Albrecht previously worked for the Pentagon (Non-Proliferation Policy) and with the Heritage Foundation, and is a graduate of Princeton University with a degree in Philosophy.