Hundreds of nuclear energy industry leaders convened in the nation’s capital earlier this month for the Nuclear Energy Institute’s annual conference, the Nuclear Energy Assembly. NEI came to discuss the technology’s future, packing the agenda with policy discussions on environment, trade, market and other issues with members of Congress and administration officials.
It is an important time for the revitalization of the nuclear energy industry. Despite setbacks in Japan and Germany, significant progress is being made in the construction of five reactors in the southeast U.S. and nearly 70 reactors worldwide. Twenty-seven of the reactors are being built in China and South Korea, and the U.S. government is reauthorizing nuclear energy trade agreements with each.
The Department of Energy projects that U.S. electricity demand will rise 28% by 2040. That means our nation will need hundreds of new power plants to provide electricity for our homes and continued economic growth. Maintaining nuclear energy’s current 20 percent share of generation would require building one reactor every year starting in 2016, or 20 to 25 new units by 2040. While that may not happen, we certainly need to support the projects underway that can start us down the path toward the first new nuclear projects in 40 years.
It is important for our generation mix mostly because nuclear energy is the only electricity source that can generate electricity reliably, efficiently and with no greenhouse-gas emissions around the clock.
And while there is a small, vocal minority always loudly opposing nuclear power, large majorities support it. Sixty-eight percent of Americans favor the use of nuclear energy as one way of producing electricity, according to a national survey conducted by Bisconti Research in February 2013. And 8 out of ten say they believe nuclear energy will play a role in meeting the U.S. need for clean energy in the years ahead.
Meanwhile, the federal government is grappling with another thorny issue: nuclear waste management policy. The Obama administration recently unveiled plans to pursue disposal of high-level radioactive waste from U.S. defense programs separately from commercially used nuclear fuel, and Congress is showing interest in enacting new nuclear waste management legislation that could include provisions advancing consolidated interim storage of used uranium fuel in a willing host state.
The latter topic was the focus of a recent congressional hearing in which advocates urged regulators to reopen the Yucca Mountain question, ratcheting up pressure on the Obama administration to revisit its decision to shut down the site.
There’s always a lot of heated discussion about Yucca Mountain and the future of waste, which remains a crucial challenge. And while there are no easy answers, recent efforts such as the President’s 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) report on the topic only seem to have created more controversy than they have resolved.
We have tried for years to address the nuclear waste issues with little success. Throughout his long career, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has used his position of power to completely undermine the government’s 1982 consensus on storing waste in the Silver State at Yucca Mountain. To successfully fix the federal government’s moribund program for managing used nuclear fuel, we’ll need more than good ideas, good legislation or good policy. We’ll need to address the fundamental flaw of the last 30 years: politics. And while Senator Reid’s retirement may help break the cycle of opposition, Nevada’s increasing importance as a swing state in Presidential politics continues to make any resolution very difficult.
The U.S. has decided that it wants to pursue an “all of the above” strategy on energy policy. Nuclear power and its burgeoning renaissance must play a key role in the future.
We all know building a the next nuclear power plant won’t be easy, even at an existing site that already hosts nuclear units. A new greenfield site for a nuclear power project may never happen. But we have to make sure the opportunities to provide reliable power at existing sites, which can also create thousands of jobs and provide communities a much-needed economic boost, make it to the finish line.
Nuclear power will help us invent the future of clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy for customers and communities. For years, politics have stifled progress. It is time to end the political gamesmanship and start providing real political leadership.
Frank Maisano is a senior principal in Bracewell & Giuliani’s government relations and strategic communications practice and is a Founding Partner in the firm’s Policy Resolution Group.