Since taking office, President Obama has consistently asserted that one of his foremost priorities is to transform America's energy landscape and move us away from high levels of carbon emissions and imported energy toward clean energy and less foreign dependence.
The question for President Obama is whether he will move beyond the safe harbor of endorsing popular energy ideas such as renewables and conservation and embrace the less loved--but absolutely indispensable--use of nuclear power to meet his energy goals. So far the evidence is not very positive.
In his speech to Congress on February 24, 2009, the president expressed dismay at the fact that while America had invented solar technology, it had fallen behind Germany and Japan in producing it. He likewise complained that while new plug-in hybrid vehicles might one day roll off American assembly lines, they would be run on batteries made in Korea. Noticeably absent from his discussion of energy advances made in other lands was this parallel: America invented nuclear power, but while the rest of the world is aggressively moving forward to use it as a means of combating the growing demand for electric power and to reduce carbon emissions, we haven't built a nuclear reactor in decades. This is most unfortunate because it is simply impossible to reduce carbon emissions or increase our energy security without nuclear energy playing a lead role.
In recent years, as America has been mired in a standoff on nuclear energy, other countries have taken the lead in its advancement. In France, nuclear energy accounts for nearly 80 percent of the nation's power supply. Nuclear plants also account for a substantial percentage of power generation in places like Russia, Japan, and Korea. Meanwhile, the governments of China and India have undertaken new nuclear efforts, and a vast number of other nations are actively contemplating either launching or relaunching nuclear energy programs at this time, including the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, and even Italy.
Since Obama took office, we've seen a provision in the stimulus bill providing additional federal loan guarantees for the building of nuclear power plants eliminated, and the Yucca Mountain project to store nuclear waste largely derailed by Yucca-specific budget cuts in the omnibus spending bill and subsequent energy appropriations legislation. These actions will have a disastrous impact on the construction of nuclear plants.
New reactors cannot be built soon enough if the United States hopes to have an impact on carbon emissions. The U.S. nuclear reactors, 104 in 31 states, are aging, mostly built decades ago, and many are pushing their decommissioning deadlines. Nuclear plants provide 21 percent of our nation's power supply. Meanwhile, wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass--the nonhydro renewables--accounted for roughly 3 percent of total net electric generation in 2007, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Because the United States has not built a new nuclear plant in decades, the percentage of power from nuclear reactors is in decline. It's expected to fall to about 14 percent of power generation by 2020, which means that even if renewable sources quadruple to 12 percent of generation by that time (meeting the low end of the renewable mandate contained in the Waxman-Markey energy bill), the combined production of emission-free power from nuclear and renewables will be only slightly higher than it is today. Thereafter, as older reactors begin going offline, we will continue to see increases in renewable energy offset by the reduction of nuclear power. And remember, wind and solar don't produce power all the time. So if nuclear power declines and projected electricity demand increases occur (U.S. electricity demand is currently forecast to rise 26 percent over the next 20 years), we will actually be using more fossil fuel power to meet the growing demand for electricity especially when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining.
Opponents of nuclear power continue to make their case on the basis of safety. They point to the 1979 Three Mile Island incident and the Soviets' 1986 Chernobyl disaster as reasons not to build new nuclear plants today. Ignored in this discussion is the fact that we've come a long way since 1979. Nuclear reactors and the whole nuclear industry have been transformed. Yet in Congress and the media, critics of nuclear energy talk as if nothing has changed. This would be like having a discussion about long-distance telephone calls without taking into account telephone deregulation, cell phones, satellites, wireless communication, fiber optics, the Internet, and all the other things that have happened in the last 30 years.
Moreover, if the old Three Mile Island-style nuclear plants are as unsafe as critics contend, why do those critics accept the continued operation of such facilities, but oppose building new, safer plants? This is like refusing to have heart bypass surgery in 2009 because back in the 1970s there was a high mortality rate associated with open-heart surgery.
Without nuclear power continuing to play as big a role in the nation's energy mix as it does today, there is little chance the United States will much reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. And without nuclear power producing at least its current 21 percent of our electricity supply in the future, there is an even smaller chance that we can enhance our energy security.
Will President Obama show leadership on this issue? In the United Kingdom, a Labour party government similarly concerned about carbon emissions and foreign energy dependence has forged ahead with a nuclear initiative first proposed by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and continued by Gordon Brown, each of whom used his office to educate the citizenry and bring many nuclear skeptics around. America needs that same type of leadership today.
For President Obama, the temptation is to follow the urgings of environmental groups and anti-nuclear activists and effectively kill off nuclear energy by denying needed federal support. But if the president is serious about reducing our dependence on foreign energy and addressing climate change, he will help launch America's renaissance in nuclear energy.
Spencer Abraham is a former secretary of energy under President Bush. He is the chairman and chief executive of the Abraham Group, which advises energy and investment companies.