Reaching consensus on nuclear

The logic behind this shift in thinking on nuclear energy is understandable when you consider that, increased conservation and efficiency measures notwithstanding, energy demand is still projected to jump 21 percent by 2030, while environmental concerns of climate change reach a critical mass.

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As Congress gets back to work on energy and climate legislation and the administration crafts policies for the upcoming U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, nuclear energy is uniquely positioned to address their major concerns — meeting rising electricity demand 24/7 in a cost-efficient way, with minimal greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear energy can’t do it alone — but it is a vital part of the solution. Our challenges call for a portfolio approach that includes and favors all emissions-lowering technologies such as solar, thermal, wind and geothermal. Yet of all the virtually carbon-free electric technologies, nuclear energy accounts for by far the largest market share with the highest operating efficiency. The 104 reactors producing power around the country account for nearly 75 percent of all carbon-free electricity produced.

As knowledge about nuclear energy’s environmental benefits has grown, so has its appeal. In fact, over the past few years, a diverse and broad-based coalition of support has formed behind this mainstay energy source.

Some 59 percent of Americans polled by Gallup earlier this year said they support nuclear energy as one way to meet the nation’s electricity needs. For the first time in three decades, in a state leading the clean energy movement, a majority of California residents surveyed last year approved building nuclear plants in their state. 

A survey commissioned this year by Women Impacting Public Policy found that 71 percent of women business owners believe nuclear energy should play an important role in America’s energy future, compared with 61 percent support from women in general.

We believe that this country has reached a new consensus on nuclear energy because there is an open and fact-based debate about the economic and environmental benefits of nuclear energy, which addresses previous concerns about waste and cost.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently told members of Congress that nuclear energy is “a fundamental component of the energy mix,” and called for a coordinated effort both to deal with spent fuel management on a national level and to close the nuclear fuel cycle through support of recycling technologies.

Last month in Colorado, Democratic Sen. Mark Udall joined Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in concluding that nuclear energy “has to be part of the solution” to meet our electricity demand in an environmentally responsible way.

Meanwhile, news about nuclear energy’s economic benefits has led to a wave of policy reforms, as state leaders, grappling with the recession, seek to position their states to compete for one or more of 25 reactors under consideration nationwide.

For instance, the new reactor that Florida Progress Energy is seeking to build at its Levy nuclear plant near Tallahassee would bring as many as 2,400 construction jobs, a much-needed boost in a state that has lost more than 250,000 construction jobs over the past two years.

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Each new reactor also brings an estimated $430 million a year in total output for the local community, according to a report by the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a national grassroots group that we both chair.

Little wonder that Florida is among three states that have introduced legislation allowing nuclear energy to be included among technologies that can help meet clean or alternative energy standards. On top of these proposed reforms, 10 states have passed policies instituting some form of cost recovery assurance for nuclear plant construction. And of the 12 states with some kind of moratorium or restriction on new nuclear capacity, seven have recently brought the issue up for debate. At least three states have passed legislation to lift such bans in at least one house of their legislature since 2008.

U.S. policymakers, environmentalists, business owners and citizens are signaling that the debate over nuclear energy has undergone a significant shift. The question is no longer “if” nuclear energy should play a role in the national energy portfolio, but how large a role should it play. The Environmental Protection Agency, for  example, says the nation will need 187 new reactors by 2050 in order to meet greenhouse gas reductions mandated by legislation passed earlier this year by the House of Representatives.

This question does not have a simple answer. It will require the attention of a broad array of stakeholders and policymakers. Yet ultimately, the mere fact that they are trying to answer this question is proof that a new nuclear energy consensus has formed.

Whitman is a former administrator of the EPA and governor of New Jersey. Moore is a former co-founder and leader of Greenpeace. They co-chair the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy), a national grassroots coalition funded by the Nuclear Energy Institute that promotes the economic and environmental benefits of nuclear energy as part of a green-energy economy.www.cleansafeenergy.org