Nuclear power needs to remain central to our energy mix

Today, the U.S. is undergoing a decisive change in how we use and produce energy. A green revolution is seeing wind and solar power grow at unprecedented rates. In the first five months of 2011, wind generation had grown by 35 percent, and solar generation grew by 49 percent over the same time period in 2010. Coal generation, for comparison, saw a 5 percent decrease in that same timespan. 

This is being accompanied by the shale gas revolution, in which new the new technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” are used to extract natural gas from shale rock formations. It has caused natural-gas production to jump 15 percent since 2005, and has caused experts to increase estimates of gas reserves to say that the United States has more than a century’s worth of reserves. 

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These technological advances can help to wean America off Middle East oil, create new American jobs and ensure stable energy prices. 

However, this revolution in electricity production faces significant hurdles to continued growth. Renewable power suffers from problems of intermittency; it is very difficult to predict how much the wind will blow or how strong the sun will shine. The American electricity grid — built to connect massive, centralized, “always on” power plants to consumers — is unable to handle the unpredictability that a substantial increase in renewable power would bring. Natural gas, too, faces economic hurdles — it has a history of rapid and extreme price fluctuations that have made utilities reluctant to rely on it.

Until these problems are solved, our electricity system requires a stable, cheap source of energy to provide “always on” baseload power. The only candidates for such power in today’s energy mix are nuclear or coal power plants. We are learning that mining and burning coal provides too much danger to human health to base our electricity system on it: a new study in the American Economic Review has found that the air pollution emitted by coal-fired electricity generation is greater than the value it adds to economy. Nuclear power, on the other hand, can provide emissions-free baseload power at a low cost. 

Today, a total of 104 nuclear reactors are operational around the country. They provide about 20 percent of the country’s total electricity. No other electricity source can combine the benefits of knowing that it will always be on with its affordability and its lack of emissions.

The operational price, excluding the costs of building the power plant, is about 2 cents per kilowatt hour — a third less than coal and half of the price of gas. 

This cheap, always available, zero-carbon power is an important backstop to the growth of new technologies. It can help smooth the price fluctuations that natural gas is vulnerable to and it provides the “always on” capacity that renewable power cannot. 

For these reasons, it is important that America’s nuclear power plants remain operational. In a reaction to public pressure after the March disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, the governments of Japan and Germany have initiated plans to close their nuclear power plants. The American public — to its credit — is not so reactionary. A recent poll by the Nuclear Energy Institute shows 62 percent in favor of nuclear power as one of the ways to provide electricity in the U.S. 

It is very important to America’s energy future that the United States does not allow a vocal minority to close down our most reliable source of emissions-free baseload power. Like any energy source, nuclear has its problems: most notably, our political and scientific leaders have not yet found a long-term solution for storing the spent nuclear waste. This challenge is solvable, but will require hard work, consensus and compromise. 

Many of our nuclear power plants are approaching the end of their initial 40-year life span. So long as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ensures a rigorous review of their safety and risk, their licenses should be renewed. 

Today, the United States must make some serious choices about the energy it wants to power its economy for the 21st century. Nuclear power should remain a central part of the electricity generation mix. Our parents and grandparents made large investments in nuclear power: today, we can enjoy this infrastructure at a low cost. While new technologies expand and develop to meet America’s growing electricity demands, the more than 100 nuclear power plants across America can provide the cheap, “always on” baseload power that ensures the lights stay on and our electricity bills remain low. 

Whitman is a former governor of New Jersey as well as former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She is also on the board of the nonpartisan think tank, the American Security Project.