Don't neglect the nation's nuclear energy option

Though it is bringing major benefits in terms of secure domestic energy supply and employment, the rapid rise of natural gas also poses serious threats to our economy, environment and national security. And, as President Obama made clear on Tuesday, drastic steps need to be taken to address the impacts of climate change. Fortunately, if we act to balance our growing reliance on gas with other energy sources, like nuclear energy, we will sidestep the threats from overuse and overreliance on natural gas, and at the same time, offset the impacts of climate change.

To many of us who study energy technologies, this accelerating trend of relying largely on today’s lowest-cost fuel source presents a long-term peril. With much of the world rapidly increasing its use of natural gas– China’s alone grew by nearly 500 percent between 2001 and 2011 – we know that natural gas cannot remain as abundant and as inexpensive over the long term. And a large segment of our economy – home heating, industrial processes, now electric power – will be hostage to future surprises in the supply and price of natural gas.

By focusing on near-term commodity pricing, we will block the development and growth of what is becoming our most valuable electric power option – nuclear energy. Sidelining nuclear power for another decade or more will lead to the continued erosion of our infrastructure of suppliers and vendors, and even the human capital of skilled nuclear power managers and operators.  If we want the benefits of nuclear energy tomorrow, we must take action today, to keep it viable and competitive.

Unlike natural gas, nuclear energy offers long-term reliability and affordability. Its uranium fuel is not a major portion of its costs, and it is not subject to the volatile price swings that we see in fossil fuels. Nuclear plants generate electricity around the clock, with efficiency factors no other energy technology can approach. And it creates thousands of high-skilled, high-paying jobs that can attract more students to science and engineering.

For the environment, the benefits of nuclear energy are unique. It is the only large-scale source of reliable electric power that does not emit climate-change gases. Natural gas may be cleaner than coal, but it is still a significant source, and increased use will only increase those emissions.

Maintaining a strong nuclear energy capability is also critically important for our national security, and in particular, our ability influence important international policies. This is one of our primary concerns. Other nations continue to see the important role of nuclear energy: globally 70 nuclear plants are under construction. If we hope to play any role in setting international nuclear policies – including all-important policies related to plutonium disposition and nuclear non-proliferation – we must remain “in the game.” The countries actively adding new nuclear plants and creating their own infrastructures will be the ones setting the rules. If we retreat from active participation, it will be at our own peril.

Currently the United States has four nuclear generating stations under construction, in Georgia and South Carolina. Several others had been planned before the great increase in natural gas production of the past decade. Those four will keep us in the game for a few years. But if we want these benefits of nuclear energy – and want to avoid the great threat of sudden surprises in the natural gas market – the country must turn at least part of its focus away from today’s fuel prices and look more to the long term.

The federal government must put teeth in its “All of the Above” policy, and action behind the president’s words, by working more forcefully to keep alternatives to natural gas viable, particularly nuclear energy. It needs to support R&D in nuclear power technology, expedite its policy for nuclear fuel disposition, support trade and export in civilian nuclear generation technology, and invest in the human infrastructure, which is the key to long-term sustainability.

With actions like these, we can avoid the pitfall of drifting into heavy reliance on a single, volatile fossil fuel, and go into the long term with the unique benefits of a growing use of nuclear energy.

Corradini is president of the American Nuclear Society and a Distinguished Professor at the University of Wisconsin. Miller, a former Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy, is currently head of the Nuclear Initiative for the Bipartisan Policy Center. Meserve, a former Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is currently president of the Carnegie Institution for Science.