Nuclear power: A cleaner future at home and abroad

As the U.S Congress struggles with energy legislation and legislation promoted by its authors as affecting the earth’s climate, we cannot forget that access to affordable and reliable energy supplies allowed the U.S. to become the most productive nation ever. Our standard of living is the envy of the world because we allowed free markets to create competition and innovation. This phenomenal success would be greatly jeopardized by policies that constrain energy supplies or inflate costs. Nuclear power provides an opportunity for the U.S. to reassert our technological leadership in ways that both help our economy and reduce global risks.

Support for nuclear power is too often dependent upon the context of the debate. No one disputes the majority of the world’s emission-free power comes from nuclear reactors, yet many of the most vocal opponents of nuclear power also view climate change as an event that could render our species extinct. In my mind, a serious climate change debate can only occur when nuclear power is a serious part of the discussion. The chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr. R.K. Pachauri, rightly observed last year that “Nuclear energy is the best option to curb carbon emissions.”

ADVERTISEMENT
The House-passed Waxman-Markey bill, and the Senate Lieberman-Warner bill before it, did not include nuclear power in the climate change debate. Last month, I voted against an energy bill in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that failed to include a proportionate and substantial role for nuclear energy. Despite the success of some efforts to revive the nuclear industry in this country over the last couple of years, the future will remain uncertain until there is real bipartisan support for domestic nuclear energy.

Nuclear power is not without any congressional support, especially internationally. Last October, the Congress voted overwhelmingly (86-13 in the Senate, 298-117 in the House) to approve a civil nuclear deal between the U.S. and India. President Bush was joined by then-Sens. Obama, Biden and Clinton in heralding the agreement as a new era in U.S.-India cooperation. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I have seen firsthand how nuclear energy can effectively serve as a tool for diplomacy, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. We also highlight that the U.S.-India deal would lead to numerous jobs and perhaps as much as $10 billion in business for U.S. companies, but the primary rationale for the agreement has always been to improve our relations with the world’s largest democracy. This does not mean we cannot also discuss the environmental benefits of nuclear power.

Two weeks ago Secretary Clinton invited me and a few other senators to the State Department for a meeting where we had a productive and bipartisan discussion about her then-upcoming trip to India. We talked about the civil nuclear agreement. India is not expected to slow its pursuit of a higher standard of living. But by building nuclear plants in place of coal plants it is providing a reliable energy supply that reduces carbon emissions. If India sees the benefit of using nuclear power to provide clean energy, the United States should pursue the same strategy.

I encourage Secretary Chu to follow Secretary Clinton’s lead and hold similar meetings at the Department of Energy to discuss the importance of domestic nuclear power. We have all heard France gets nearly 80 percent of its power from nuclear. China and India are building new reactors today, and so is Europe. Westinghouse will build its first next-generation reactor in China. The United Arab Emirates will also build new reactors before the U.S. The opportunity is too great for the U.S. not to lead the world in developing all new forms of clean energy.

Clean energy comes in many forms. However, after nuclear and hydroelectric power, all other energy sources combine for only a small fraction of the whole. Most of the power in my state comes from dams that were built more than half a century ago — which is why power generation in Idaho accounts for very little carbon emissions today. The Idaho National Laboratory lit the first light bulb using nuclear power on July 17, 1955, in the town of Arco. Wind, solar, geothermal and clean coal are promising energy sources for the future, but the day when they can supply the necessary large amounts of baseload power is still years away. Fossil fuels will remain a vital part of our portfolio while we necessarily transition to other sources. The speed with which we make that transition will depend largely on how soon we can expand the role of nuclear power.

The challenges we face in our pursuit of abundant energy that is both clean and affordable are formidable, but not insurmountable. Americans have taken on these kinds of challenges for generations. We went to the moon 40 years ago. We pioneered nuclear power more than 50 years ago. The goals of increasing nuclear power and decreasing greenhouse gases are not mutually exclusive. Congress can begin by showing the same bipartisan support for domestic nuclear power we have shown for nuclear programs abroad, where we encourage other countries to buy American nuclear technology to power their economies cleanly into the future.


Risch is the ranking member on the Energy subcommittee of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and the ranking member on the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is also a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Joint Economic Committee.