The Nuclear Option

Nuclear energy must be a part of the comprehensive solution to climate change

Speaking at MIT on Oct. 26, President Obama besought MIT students and students at colleges all across America to tackle the “challenge of their generation” by pursuing research in alternative fuel sources and technologies and other methods of combating climate change and obtaining independence from foreign sources of oil. We appreciate the president’s calling upon young people to engage the critical issue of energy independence and hope that students at MIT and other universities answer this call. We also endorse the current effort on Capitol Hill to pass climate-change legislation. However, we urge lawmakers not to resort to the specious and politically convenient answers of ethanol and clean coal, the inefficient and experimental favorites of special interests, and recognize that nuclear power must be an integral part of any comprehensive solution to this crisis.Since the infamous Three Mile Island incident in 1979, there has been a de facto moratorium on the construction on the construction of new nuclear plants in the United States. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently reviewing applications for 26 new reactors, none of which would be constructed before 2016. Hurdles include draconian environmental regulations, a shortage in the supply of nuclear components and qualified personnel, and the lack of willing investors.This status quo is unacceptable. Nuclear energy is far and away one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal for cutting emissions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, constructing 180 new reactors would cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Even Energy Secretary Steven Chu has also expressed support, even if somewhat lukewarm, for the nuclear approach, endorsing in September additional loan-guarantee authority for nuclear power and saying that, “If you really want to restart the American nuclear energy industry in a serious way...we [need to] send signals to the industry that the U.S. is serious about investing in nuclear power plants.”Fears about the safety of nuclear power are outdated; since the Three Mile Island incident, there have been no new major accidents either here or in France, whose 59 nuclear reactors provide 90 percent of its power. Furthermore, the security concerns are more than balanced by the enormous benefits in terms of the jobs that would be created through the construction and maintenance of these reactors, the improvements in our energy efficiency as a nation, the ensuing energy independence, and the enormous progress in lowering emissions and combating climate change that would result.Few other energy sources have so much potential to become the silver bullet to our energy woes. Wind and solar power together could not provide 90 percent of France’s electricity, as nuclear power does, nor could they allow the country to become the largest exporter of electricity in the world, as it currently is. Even in the United States, 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states already provide a fifth of our electricity and 70 percent of all our non-carbon-emitting power.Yet even if one remains hesitant about nuclear technology in principle, there remains political reality to consider. On June 26, the House of Representatives narrowly passed the American Clean Energy Security Act, which creates a “cap and trade” system to establish an economic disincentive for carbon emission by requiring polluters to pay a fine to the government or to other smaller polluters should they pass a certain emissions benchmark. As soon as the votes were finished being counted in the House, conventional wisdom declared the bill dead in the Senate, where it faces overwhelming opposition by Republicans and considerable opposition by Democrats hailing from coal-producing states. Among the latter is Montana Senator Max Baucus, who said, “We cannot afford the unmitigated impacts of climate change but we also cannot afford the unmitigated effects of legislation.”Recently, however, prospects for the Senate climate-change bill written by Senator John Kerry and Senator Barbara Boxer have improved. The reason, no doubt, has been a compromise over nuclear power in which key Democrats have agreed to offer it as a concession to court the votes of Republicans, including John McCain, George Voinovich, Lisa Murkowski, Lamar Alexander, Richard Burr, and Lindsey Graham.Graham co-wrote on article in The New York Times Oct. 10 with Senator John Kerry endorsing a climate-change initiative in the Senate, and in the article both senators made clear their support for the inclusion of a nuclear component in their comprehensive climate change strategy, writing, “We need to jettison cumbersome regulations that have stalled the construction of nuclear plants in favor of a streamlined permit system that maintains vigorous safeguards while allowing utilities to secure financing for more plants. We must also do more to encourage serious investment in research and development to find solutions to our nuclear waste problem.”It is clear that a number of these senators will only vote for the bill should a concession for nuclear energy be included. McCain, who championed nuclear power during his failed presidential bid, put it rather bluntly: “I can’t negotiate without a robust nuclear provision.” Murkowski, likewise, said, “The only way we get if we really ramp up nuclear.”Climate change is too urgent an issue to allow opposition to nuclear power to derail the Boxer-Kerry Bill, likely to be the only legislation comprehensive enough to tackle the issue that we will see for many years. The McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act of 2005 was defeated 60-38 in the Senate by senators like Boxer who voted against it due to its nuclear provisions. Now is not the time for a repeat of this embarrassing setback, without which we would have been tackling the climate crisis head on for the last four years.