The Magazine

The Nuclear Option

From the August 15 / August 22, 2004 issue: Time for policymakers to get over the China Syndrome.

Aug 15, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 45 • By SPENCER ABRAHAM
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Moreover, given the life expectancy of most of today's nuclear units, plants will begin closing around 2022, after which the nuclear share of our power supply will decline more sharply. By 2055 the percentage will be zero, as the last American plant goes off line. Therefore, unless renewables have swollen to 24 percent by that date (a very heavy lift), the failure to build more nuclear power plants will mean even more reliance on carbon-based power in both actual and percentage terms later in the century.

In short, antinuclear environmentalists must rethink their position because without nuclear power it's unlikely any major country will achieve significant reductions in emissions, such as those called for by the Kyoto protocol.

THE FINAL QUESTION, then, is whether the nuclear industry is itself prepared to take a bullish approach if the foregoing developments transpire. With justification, the nuclear industry has been very cautious about new plants for years, content to focus on keeping existing facilities in operation for as long as possible. But the time has come for engagement, especially if Congress acts to address the waste issue.

The industry has an important story to tell. Nuclear power is not only the best available means to reduce emissions, it is also the best way to curb America's dependence on imported energy. Also to be touted is the industry's exceptional safety record over the past 25 years. And the new generation of reactors (ones developed since 1979 but not yet built in the United States) are even safer than those in operation today.

It is a propitious time for the nuclear industry. In addition to the new energy bill, the current administration favors nuclear power, and the public is eager to seize upon innovations that will allow us to reduce emissions and gain greater energy independence. This is not a moment to let slip by.

Spencer Abraham, the former U.S. secretary of energy, is a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.