Nuclear power meets the challenges of climate change and better health

Discussions about nuclear energy often examine its benefits in terms of emissions reductions, but people tend to overlook the public health benefits of this important energy source. In fact, studies show that nuclear energy is less likely to cause adverse health effects than fossil fuels and biofuels, according to the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Even with its emissions and health benefits, nuclear energy is often overlooked in U.S. energy policy discussions. Notably, President Obama recently issued a directive requiring all executive branch agencies to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. While this directive will help to reduce emissions, it is disappointing that it overlooks nuclear energy technologies – not only for their contributions to low-carbon energy production, but also for public health.

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Nuclear energy facilities prevented the equivalent production of 570 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States in 2012, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI). This is nearly equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide that is released annually from 110 million cars. Not only that, but NASA scientists James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha published a study last year in the journal Environmental Science and Technology noting that global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.8 million air pollution-related deaths that would otherwise have resulted from the burning of fossil fuels. If nuclear energy technologies replaced fossil fuels on a large scale, that number could grow to 7 million lives saved over the next 40 years.

With society’s need for energy growing, we need a reliable, diverse energy mix that prioritizes low- carbon energy sources to reduce emissions and improve public health. We must consider all low-carbon and low-emissions sources of energy, which means both renewable and nuclear energy, as well as other technologies that reduce consumption. As the only round-the-clock, baseload source for reliably generating significant amounts of affordable low-carbon energy, nuclear energy must play an expanding role in U.S. energy policy.

Accounting for 20 percent of the U.S. energy supply and 64 percent of U.S. low-carbon energy, nuclear energy can also contribute to meeting the goals that President Obama laid out in his directive: it reduces pollution, promotes U.S. energy independence and is a domestic energy source that provides thousands of jobs. In fact, the nuclear energy industry expects to hire as many as 20,000 highly skilled workers by 2018 to fill jobs vacated by workers who are expected to retire, according to NEI.

As we look toward nuclear energy and the possibilities it holds to help us safely and sustainably power our future, the industry is focused on both building the next generation of nuclear energy facilities and extending the operations of the existing reactor fleet. We refer to this as the daily renewal of nuclear energy. Five new reactors are under construction today in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. Meanwhile, over the last three decades, the existing fleet has ramped up output while maintaining safe and secure operations. This ongoing daily renewal of nuclear energy added the power equivalent of more than six new nuclear reactors to our country’s electricity supply since 1977. The industryaccomplished this by continually innovating, and upgrading technology and capabilities, and it continues to do so today.

Leading U.S. nuclear energy technology providers, like AREVA, play an ongoing role in this daily nuclear energy renewal, deploying its highly skilled workforce and delivering technology innovations to keep nuclear facilities running across the country. For example, after installing the first digital instrumentation and control system at a U.S. nuclear energy facility in 2011, AREVA successfully completed the installation of a third system in December. This state-of-the-art technology helps modernize equipment in the current nuclear fleet, and improves plant safety, reliability, capability and longevity.

While no one technology will stop climate change or solve energy-related health problems, we must make every effort to address these issues. Our sustainable energy future will be realized through renewable and nuclear energy, and technology innovation. It’s time for domestic nuclear energy to play a greater role in U.S. energy policy, and I encourage policymakers to act now to support nuclear as a low-carbon, safe and affordable energy source. Our health and sustainable energy future depend on it.

Rencheck is president and CEO of AREVA Inc.