Two years ago, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, claiming almost 3,000 lives and ravaging the infrastructure of the small island. When the catastrophic storm made landfall, Puerto Rico’s already weak energy system was destroyed. As the island quickly lost power, residents lost a critical lifeline that could have prevented hundreds of deaths.
In the continued aftermath of such tragedy, we need to take a hard look at Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure. Today, the island is still not on its feet — it took nearly a year for the island’s only power company to restore electricity to most of Puerto Rico’s residents — and now we are experiencing the consequences of slow action in our economy, education and health systems.
That’s why I support nuclear energy as one of the key solutions to Puerto Rico’s energy crisis. Nuclear energy is clean, resilient, sustainable and independent — just what the island needs as it works to rebuild and advance its energy systems. Advanced nuclear reactors can withstand hurricanes and continue operating even if the grid is lost to power critical infrastructure like hospitals, first responders and the water supply.
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The simple truth is that Puerto Ricans can’t wait for help from the federal government or other organizations when disaster strikes. Puerto Rico received a disproportionately low amount of relief funding for Hurricane Maria, and we can argue about the why and the how, but one thing remains clear: Puerto Rico must be prepared to produce its own electricity, but we must do so in a sustainable way.
The imperative of climate change means nuclear power is a logical choice: It’s emissions-free and produces large amounts of electricity with a small geographic footprint, independent from other energy sources.
Nuclear energy is also reliable and resilient. Rain or shine, nuclear generates the same steady baseload of power. What’s more, nuclear plants can withstand even the toughest of hurricanes and are always ready to continue producing electricity to turn the lights back on.
Advanced technologies such as small modular reactors show us the future of nuclear technology is already within our reach. These are factory-built, easily installed smaller reactors that can go on- or off-grid, can easily scale as energy demand grows and are just as safe and reliable as the reactor facilities we have in the United States today. While renewable projects on the island are responding to an immediate need in underserved rural communities, advanced reactors can be located in metropolitan and manufacturing areas to power the island’s economy.
Carbon-free nuclear energy also provides high-quality, good-paying jobs. Each SMR plant employs up to 200 workers and generates an average of $181 million in revenue from electricity sales as well as local spending.
With nuclear power, Puerto Rico has the opportunity to provide more jobs and create revenue to build schools, construct new roads and modernize the grid. Without a reliable source of electricity, Puerto Rico is unlikely to accomplish any of those direly needed projects.
Puerto Rico had the Boiling Nuclear Superheating Reactor in the 1960s, so this topic is not new for the island. And now that nuclear energy has evolved so much, why not bring this great opportunity to Puerto Rico again? The challenge is that conversations around nuclear energy are deeply inaccurate, stalling progress on building nuclear infrastructure.
As a public health advocate, I know just how important health and safety is, and I also know that we must rely on sound science to inform our choices. The scientific evidence affirms that nuclear energy is safe, reliable and resilient — making it the right choice for Puerto Rico.
As a global community, we face rampant poverty, limited clean water and climate change — all of which is tied inextricably to one another and to the themes of environmental and social justice.
We cannot solve these problems by thinking of isolated solutions. So as Puerto Rico looks to its future, we must look to opportunities that work to lift the island out of energy poverty and benefit other parts of the island’s society and economy, including jobs, education, public health and water availability.
When it comes to implementing these ideas, Puerto Ricans have no shortage of talent and drive, only a shortage of opportunity to steer our communities to prosperity. Investing in nuclear energy is one of the most important ways we can do that.
My team at The Nuclear Alternative Project is doing our part: Recently, we received funding from the Department of Energy to conduct a feasibility study to understand how advanced nuclear can respond to the energy, economic, societal and environmental needs in Puerto Rico. Now it is your turn. I hope you’ll join me in advocating for swift action that affirms what I know to be true: Nuclear matters, and so do the lives of Puerto Ricans.
Jesabel Rivera-Guerra is head of community impact and engagement for the Nuclear Alternative Project, and she is also a member of the Nuclear Matters Advocacy Council.
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