By David Gattie
May 23, 2017 at 5:00 am ET
For three decades U.S. nuclear power has been strongly influenced by three forces — one from the market, one from regulations and one from apathy. Consequently, nuclear power in America has lost ground that must be reclaimed in order to enhance grid reliability, meet economic and climate objectives, and maintain national security.
In the early 2000s, fracking technology unlocked abundant U.S. natural gas resources giving the U.S. electric power sector the opportunity to develop a portfolio of unprecedented diversity comprised of coal, natural gas, nuclear and traditional and emerging renewables. This created an upsurge in the development of gas-fired power as markets naturally selected for less-expensive natural gas. However, this came with a downside for nuclear, particularly in deregulated markets that can’t account for the climate benefits of nuclear power or the long-term energy security and reliability that nuclear ensures.
Soon, climate change emerged as a paramount issue with political traction and found a receptive U.S. executive branch prepared to take regulatory action to reduce U.S. carbon emissions. Since the power sector was a primary target of carbon regulations, this appeared to be the ideal scenario for pursuing nuclear as the single energy resource capable of providing baseload power, reducing emissions, increasing grid reliability and sustaining economic growth. However, rules such as the Clean Power Plan favored solar, wind and natural gas. While the emphasis on natural gas as a less-expensive, lower-carbon alternative to coal was reasonable, the CPP’s Clean Energy Incentive Program specifically incentivized solar and wind as clean energy to the exclusion of nuclear. This was a misleading division of clean energy resources as one brand, intermittent renewables, was championed over another, baseload nuclear. A recent study indicates that, on an energy basis, wind and solar receive orders of magnitude more in subsidies than conventional fuels.
Further back, political decisions to abandon molten salt reactor and Integral Fast Reactor efforts effectively relegated promising nuclear developments to the dust bins of research laboratories. Eventually, political apathy settled in with President Bill Clinton’s 1993 decision to end nuclear power research, characterizing it as a program no longer needed.
Consequently, nuclear is finding limited quarter in the U.S. electric power sector at a time when zero-carbon electricity is needed most and other countries are moving ahead of the U.S. in nuclear development.
While President Donald Trump relaxes rules constraining coal and natural gas, such actions have a political lifespan and will likely come under the scrutiny of a future president who will issue executive orders to reverse the actions of President Trump. The U.S. power sector needs stability and a resilient energy policy that facilitates long-term integrated resource planning; therefore, energy policy by executive order on a four-year rotation of political ideology is no foundation for U.S. energy security.
The extreme to which some would actually take the U.S., is clearly articulated in recently submitted legislation in the Senate proposing to transition the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Though unlikely to find sufficient support, this vision for America’s energy future is nonetheless at the highest level of U.S. politics and it represents an ideology dogmatically pursued by others — i.e., abandon all traditional energy resources and commit America’s economy and national security to an unprecedented and unproven 100 percent renewable energy dependency.
An America powered entirely by weather-dependent energy resources in a world where economic, industrial and military powers are advancing their respective national interests through advanced nuclear technologies is an America that should never be considered. However, if the U.S. takes no policy action today to sustain existing nuclear capacity or to promote new and advanced nuclear technologies, this 100% renewable energy contrivance will be one step closer to becoming a political reality, in spite of its technological and economic irrationalities.
The Trump administration has the opportunity to make a landmark contribution to U.S. energy policy by engaging the current nuclear power issues in Georgia and South Carolina. In doing so, the administration would be assuming a necessary and understandable role in the interest of national security by helping negotiate conditions to usher the U.S. through the current struggles, provide much-needed influence to sustain U.S. nuclear power for the long-term and incorporate a measure of energy policy stability for the power sector.
This would constitute political resolve and strategic policy to reclaim ground lost when advanced nuclear research and development was progressing but was surrendered to the politics of the day. It would help correct course due to misconceptions about clean energy and allow U.S. nuclear power to compete with intermittent renewables as a clean energy resource in its own right, yet with superior reliability. Moreover, it would give the U.S. nuclear power industry the opportunity to advance beyond light water reactor designs and become a global leader in next-generation nuclear technologies.
While the immediate nuclear power issues in Georgia and South Carolina are due to the financial condition of an international corporation headquartered in Japan, the outcome may well determine the fate of nuclear power in America. Therefore, this isn’t about whether nuclear power works — it does. This isn’t about whether nuclear power can support U.S. economic and climate objectives — it can. This isn’t about whether nuclear power in America is safe — it is. This is about whether America has the political resolve to correct past apathy towards nuclear power, promote nuclear as the clean energy resource it is, and sustain nuclear power as a critical technology to safely and reliably meet economic, climate and national security objectives — objectives shared by U.S. leadership across the political spectrum and throughout all 50 states.
America needs nuclear power. However, does America have the political resolve to moderate the past eight years of renewables-centric policy and the past three decades of apathy toward nuclear power in order to reclaim lost ground and develop next-generation nuclear technologies to meet climate, economic and national security objectives?
David Gattie is an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia. He does energy policy research and conducts solar power studies on a facility operated by Georgia Power Company.
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