Illinois leading the way in nuclear

While it might be better known as the Land of Lincoln and the poster child for fiscal mismanagement, Illinois has long been a leader in the energy sector. It is home to a diverse energy base, with a particularly strong presence of nuclear energy production, and to Argonne National Laboratory. Argonne was the first science and engineering laboratory to build a nuclear reactor, and today it continues to house the best and brightest minds in the nuclear industry. Our 11 nuclear plants generate 48.2 percent of the state’s electricity and employ nearly 5,000 skilled workers in quality, well-paying jobs.

I have seen firsthand the benefits of nuclear energy production in my district, which is why I joined the House Nuclear Issues Working Group as a co-chairman in the 113th Congress. The working group, founded in 1999, is a bipartisan coalition composed of members of Congress with interests in a wide variety of issues involving the use of nuclear technology, including nuclear research and development, education and workforce and waste disposal and reprocessing. We strive to educate other members of Congress and the public on the most recent developments in nuclear energy and craft legislation to further enhance the benefits offered by this growing field.

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The U.S. nuclear energy industry currently supports more than 100,000 American jobs and is poised to offer even more opportunities in the near future. In the next four years, 50 percent of the nuclear workforce will either be eligible for retirement or are expected to leave their jobs. This drastic change in the makeup of the nuclear workforce comes to tens of thousands of jobs to construct and run new and existing reactors. 

Even a modest expansion of our nuclear energy sector would yield tremendous economic growth. The typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear facility generates approximately $470 million a year in total economic output for the local community and supports a $40 million payroll for the men and women who work there. Local manufacturing industries, including producers of concrete, steel and piping, also greatly benefit from the construction of new nuclear energy facilities, along with manufacturers of the components needed in control boards and other advanced technologies. 

As countries around the world embrace nuclear energy, American expertise in the field creates an even greater opportunity for well-paying jobs at home. With more than 60 reactors being built globally, U.S. companies have an unprecedented opportunity to export components, manufacturing and services. The Department of Commerce estimates that every $1 billion in exports by U.S. companies represents 5,000 to 10,000 jobs. The new jobs created in the nuclear energy sector will provide stable, high-paying, skill-based employment to thousands of Americans. 

The United States is the world leader in nuclear power because of the technical and scientific workers employed at our nuclear reactors, research labs and nuclear companies that construct and service reactors around the globe. These companies are competing directly with countries like France and Russia for opportunities in new markets. It’s a competition we usually win because of our safety records, experience and technical expertise. 

But these jobs are at risk — not from foreign competitors but from our own government. Before an American nuclear energy company can even offer its services to a foreign country, the president and Congress must approve what is called a 123 nuclear agreement. These complex political agreements are meant to ensure the United States and the foreign country are protecting the technology and safely keeping it as agreed. 

Currently, the United States is in the middle of negotiating a renewal of the 123 agreement with South Korea. North Korea’s recent erratic actions have delayed progress with this renewal, putting thousands of jobs in the United States at risk. These highly trained professionals are not easily replaced, and every experienced engineer or scientist who is lost to a delayed agreement weakens the industry. 

I’m proud of our nuclear industry and achievements in Illinois and the United States. There is great value in ensuring the industry stays healthy and robust, particularly keeping and growing the jobs vital to our economy and security. I’ll be working hard in my roles on the Foreign Affairs and Energy and Commerce committees to ensure the right doors are open to allow the industry to prosper. This includes opening new export markets with our allies and smart, safe regulation here at home. With the right people, and great places like Argonne, the future of nuclear power in the United States is in good hands.

Kinzinger is a member of the Energy and Commerce and Foreign Affairs committees.