U.S. clean energy future rests on clarity of policies

The Senate hearings were an ideal forum for the communication of this truth: The real limitations on nuclear energy’s growth are more rooted in political and financial considerations, and clarity of the nation’s energy policy, than anything else.

Nuclear energy’s ability to reliably provide large amounts of clean electricity, around the clock, is long since proven. As the chairman and vice chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute’s board of directors, and as the chief executives of our respective electric utilities, we take great pride in the achievements and professionalism of the thousands of men and women who work at our industry’s nuclear energy facilities and make them such vital contributors to the fabric and well-being of the communities and regions in which they operate.

This performance undergirds the growing conversations among policymakers on the federal and state level about the strategic importance of nuclear energy to our nation’s economic, energy and environmental future.

Recent studies by the Electric Power Research Institute, National Academies of Science and the Energy Information Administration all conclude that nuclear energy must play a key role in our nation’s transition to a low-carbon energy base. An analysis of the House’s climate change legislation (H.R. 2454) by the Environmental Protection Agency projects that 187 new nuclear plants will need to be built in the United States by 2050 to achieve the bill’s core policy scenario.

Currently, however, federal loan guarantees are available for only four new nuclear energy projects. If nuclear energy is to be a part of the solution to our energy challenge, a different and more substantial financing platform is needed.

Nuclear energy facilities and other large capital energy investments face significant financial challenges, particularly during this period of financial market duress. Nuclear power plants are costly to build but provide low-cost electricity for generations of Americans over the life of the plant — which is at least 60 years. Uranium fuel is, by far, our lowest-cost fuel for electricity production. And if public officials are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear energy is the best available energy technology and must be part of the equation. It already produces 72 percent of U.S. carbon-free electricity.

With an eye toward the significant industry expansion projected by EPA, EPRI and other analyses, the industry developed a package of legislative policy initiatives that must be put in place if this expansion is to occur at that scale in the decades ahead. Some of the key initiatives include: 

• Financing support for clean energy sources, including nuclear energy facilities.

• A more efficient licensing process for advanced reactor designs.

• Federal tax stimulus to accelerate development of critical workforce and U.S. manufacturing.

Increasing America’s reliance on nuclear energy will serve other national priorities. Building new nuclear plants will create hundreds of thousands of jobs in construction, production of the components and materials that go into the plants, and in the secondary job market. Nuclear expansion could stem the movement of U.S. manufacturing offshore and make the United States a leader in clean energy technology. A nuclear construction program will breathe new life into the U.S. manufacturing sector as it rebuilds and retools to produce the pumps, valves, vessels and other nuclear-grade equipment needed for new nuclear plants.

Coupled with the expansion of other clean-air sources of electricity such as wind and solar, nuclear energy will help to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, protect the environment, promote energy security and reliability, and expand our economy. By providing large quantities of affordable, 24/7 baseload electricity, nuclear energy facilities offer an excellent platform upon which intermittent energy supplies can be effectively managed.

For this to happen successfully, clear signals must be sent by Congress and the Obama administration. Political support and direction have a significant effect on any technology choice in the energy sector.

Gates is president and CEO of Omaha Public Power District and Johnson is chairman, president and CEO of Progress Energy. They are the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Nuclear Energy Institute’s board of directors.