Time for US to live up to its nuclear potential

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Reliable, affordable energy is the foundation of our nation’s economy. America is blessed with abundant natural resources. Our energy history is full of new technologies displacing old ones. Coal led the industrial revolution in the United States. Thomas Edison’s electric lightbulb displaced candles and kerosene lamps. Following World War II, nuclear science catapulted America to superpower status. 

In 1955, a small town in Idaho became the first in America to be fully powered by an experimental nuclear reactor, the Idaho National Energy Laboratory. Two years later, the first full-scale nuclear power plant began service in Pennsylvania.

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But now, 60 years after the ribbon was cut on the first nuclear reactor, the U.S. has not lived up to its potential. Political meddling, costly red tape and a shifting regulatory landscape have jeopardized America’s energy security. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the federal government’s treatment of safe, reliable and clean nuclear energy.   

In response to a ruling from a federal court, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last October concluded that Yucca Mountain, located in Nye County, Nev., is a safe long-term repository for storing spent nuclear fuel. This is a welcome announcement, but it came as no surprise to the experts. What’s troubling is that a court had to compel the NRC to do its job.    

The NRC acts as the nuclear power industry’s regulatory watchdog. With the release of the Safety Evaluation Report, it finally set aside years of fearmongering and declared the project ready to move forward. But the process ground to a halt when the NRC was dragged into a political fight. When Sen. Harry ReidHarry ReidDems' Florida Senate primary nears its bitter end Trump haunts McCain's reelection fight 10 most expensive House races MORE (D-Nev.) took over the Senate, he worked tirelessly to undermine the Yucca Mountain project. 

Instead of working toward bipartisan solutions, Sen. Reid put up roadblocks — from packing the NRC with anti-nuclear activists to eliminating funding for Yucca Mountain. This political obstruction has been a blow to the industry and the rule of law, which requires the federal government to manage the nation’s spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain. 

Yucca Mountain would provide safe long-term storage, but more importantly, it would provide certainty for the nuclear energy industry. After $15 billion in spending, the project was halted in its tracks. This was not only illegal but also wasteful. Reid’s actions stifled innovation that could have put us on a clear path to greater energy security. Private investment was jeopardized by red tape and endless delays, making it next to impossible to build new nuclear plants within the United States.

As a source of safe, abundant, emission-free power, nuclear energy is a missed opportunity, especially for an administration that claims to support an “all of the above” energy policy. And unlike wind or solar energy, nuclear power is reliable — it works when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. The regulatory process is cumbersome and lacks the certainty needed for sustained investment in new nuclear energy technology.

Fortunately, creative minds at our national labs and in the private sector are working to unlock the secrets of nuclear science. Advanced reactor concepts offer tremendous advantages. New designs recycle used nuclear fuel, produce heat for industrial applications and yield increased efficiency. In the face of political and regulatory uncertainty, America’s entrepreneurs continue to pursue improvements to nuclear technology. 

Last month, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee heard from several experts and entrepreneurs about the great potential of new reactor concepts. One witness discussed how her company is working to develop an innovative molten-salt reactor that will convert what we now consider nuclear “waste” into safe, clean electricity. Another company is developing a small modular reactor that has advanced safety features allowing the reactor to self-cool in an emergency without any electricity or mechanized systems.

Nuclear energy has nearly limitless potential. But developing advanced energy technology requires consistent policy, long-term investment and patience. Instead of acting as an obstacle to progress, the federal government should serve as a reliable partner to the scientists, researchers, engineers, inventors and investors working to turn the promise of nuclear energy into reality. Innovative advanced reactor technology provides the opportunity for long-term, high-reward research that will benefit future generations.

 

Smith has represented Texas’s 21st Congressional District since 1987. He is chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, and also sits on the Homeland Security and Judiciary committees.