Time for America to embrace emissions-free nuclear power

Every April, we come together as a nation to observe Earth Day and raise greater awareness of our environment. This Earth Day, the climate debate has once again taken center stage in Washington, and it is imperative that clean nuclear power be at the forefront of the discussion. 

Through a greater commitment to nuclear, we have a unique opportunity to cut greenhouse gases, provide stability to our electrical supply and create jobs. While supplying just 20 percent of our electricity, nuclear accounts for an extraordinary 70 percent of our nation’s emissions-free power. 

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With our energy needs expected to grow nearly 40 percent over the next two decades, it is critical that we address long-term solutions to fortify our energy supply, and nuclear must be part of the conversation.

Despite nuclear power’s tremendous potential, the nation is lacking a coherent policy as we look toward the future. Nuclear was largely ignored as the job-killing cap-and-tax scheme made its way through the House last June. And, one of the first actions taken by the administration in February 2009 was to pull the plug on the Yucca Mountain repository for spent nuclear fuel. An alarmingly swift demise for Yucca Mountain despite nearly three decades of planning, more than $10 billion spent and more than $33 billion collected from ratepayers.

It is confounding that the administration would pursue such a drastic shift in nuclear policy without offering viable alternatives for managing spent fuel from the 104 reactors that operate across 31 states.

Most experts agree that spent nuclear fuel should be located at one site, deep within the be
rock of Nevada’s Mojave Desert for thousands of years rather than in temporary stockpiles scattered across the country.

The situation involving Yucca Mountain has reached critical mass with Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently signaling that the administration is accelerating the project’s termination without a plan to preserve the research and data collected during the planning phase.

Considering the Yucca Mountain repository could be reconsidered as a disposal site in the future, it is imperative that the research conducted and billions spent over the last three decades are not squandered.

Despite the political motives behind Yucca’s termination, it does reignite a vigorous debate over how to manage spent fuel, which is a matter of national security. While I remain a staunch proponent of Yucca Mountain, we should embark on a recycling program for spent nuclear fuel.

France, Britain and Japan all enjoy using recycling technology originally developed in the United States with great success, yet we have foolishly fallen behind. Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas) and I have introduced legislation to revive recycling spent fuel in the United States. This legislation would create thousands of new jobs and reignite our stagnant manufacturing sector. Today in the United States, an individual’s lifetime footprint of spent nuclear fuel is about the size of a soda pop can. Using proven recycling technology, we would be able to reduce the volume 95 percent to that of a Kennedy half-dollar. 

Another exciting development in nuclear is the construction of small modular nuclear reactors.  In the effort to meet growing energy demands, a recent bright spot is the new Department of Energy program to support the research, development and deployment of reactors that can be manufactured exclusively in the United States.  These reactors are about one-third the size of current reactors and can be built in factories through a process that reduces cost and construction times, providing significant employment opportunities in Michigan and other Rust Belt states that have seen a mass exodus of manufacturing jobs.

At a time of near double-digit unemployment, a renewed commitment to nuclear could also be the engine driving our economic recovery. According to data from Oxford Economics, building 100 new reactors and an appropriate number of enrichment and reprocessing plants in the United States over the next 20 years would create over 1 million new jobs.

Having not constructed a new nuclear facility in more than 30 years, an entire manufacturing sector has shut down and we have seen a majority of nuclear component-construction and manufacturing jobs migrate overseas.  When the two nuclear plants just miles from my doorstep in southwest Michigan were constructed three decades ago, nearly 85 percent of the components were proudly made by U.S. workers. Today, as new plants come online, 85 percent of the parts are made overseas. 

Since the House passed the cap-and-tax job killer last June, many of the world’s leading nations — including China, Japan, South Korea, India, France and Britain — have ramped up their pursuit of nuclear power. There is no reason that we cannot stamp “Made in America” on the parts and components for reactors being built here at home and those in construction abroad. The world’s leading emitters understand the importance of nuclear power in reducing emissions. It is well past time we do the same or risk being left behind. 

This Earth Day, let us renew our commitment to nuclear power — our environment and our economy will be better for it.

Upton is the ranking member on the House Subcommittee
on Energy and the Environment.