A nuclear frontier
Last month’s once-in-a-century freeze throughout Texas and much of the Midwest underscored an inescapable reality: we need reliable energy, and more of it. Modern society demands it. Millions around the world are escaping poverty because of increased access to reliable energy, a demand that will increase by an estimated 25 percent over the next 20 years. But this isn’t the only demand from the public. People all over the world are also demanding cleaner energy that reduces carbon emissions.
The Biden administration believes we can do this by prioritizing solar and wind energy. They’re wrong.
Now, I am not opposed to wind and solar on any philosophical level. I think they should be a part of the energy mix in locations where it makes sense and the environmental damage can be minimized (remember, you need to clear huge areas to build wind and solar. This is not costless to the environment).
But the sun and wind have self-evident limitations that many refuse to acknowledge. If the Texas grid was solely or even mostly reliant on renewables last month, our situation would be far more dire. So how do we achieve both a massive reduction in emissions while also maintaining reliable baseload energy? Nuclear.
Nuclear energy has gotten a pretty bad rap. The hit show Chernobyl certainly didn’t help, and the memory of the Fukushima plant in Japan is still fresh for many. But the truth is that nuclear is very safe. I’ve dove hundreds of feet under the ocean with a nuclear reactor humming along right next to me, like many Navy submariners do daily. Most Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor and have never noticed it. The oft-repeated claim that we can’t safely dispose of nuclear waste is false. We can store nuclear waste safely for 1 million years in Yucca Mountain, which Congress designated as the country’s nuclear waste repository in 1987.
We don’t even designate nuclear energy as clean energy, even though it is carbon-free. As a result, solar power gets 250 times more subsidies than nuclear, and wind gets 160 times more. Not only is nuclear fuel vastly underutilized, but it is virtually infinite with the potential to separate uranium from seawater. One uranium fuel pellet creates as much energy as one ton of coal.
So why don’t we build more? Nuclear plants are expensive, for starters. This is partly because permitting requirements go far beyond reasonable safety standards, as well as a lack of scale (we aren’t committing to building a lot of plants, so we can’t “buy in bulk”). And here in Texas, where wind energy is prioritized to the grid, nuclear plants sometimes operate at a loss, despite the fact that they are producing reliable clean energy continuously. The result? No one wants to invest in building a nuclear power plant.
These aren’t impossible obstacles. Aside from streamlining permitting and regulation, the government could also co-sign the loan for financing new projects, a model that is proving successful at Plant Vogtle in Georgia (currently the only new nuclear project under construction in the United States).
Legislation such as the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, Advanced Fuel Availability Act, and the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act have all received bipartisan support in Congress as well. It’s time to pass them. Last year, the Trump administration overturned a 2009 OPIC restriction on nuclear reactor financing which allows our Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to fund nuclear energy projects abroad. Allowing the DFC to fund nuclear energy projects will help the United States — not Russia and China — fill the rising demand for nuclear energy. Removing this outdated restriction received bipartisan support across the political spectrum, for good reason.
New, advanced nuclear technology is also promising. In October, the government announced the development of two new advanced reactors, X-Energy and TerraPower, funded through the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program (ARDP), which was created by a bipartisan funding bill in the 115th Congress. This was a moonshot goal to bring advanced nuclear technology to market, and it went from an idea to reality within four years. The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act is a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would accelerate these developments and encourage public-private partnerships to bring advanced nuclear technology to market. We could pass it into law right now.
For all the hysterical talk from the Green New Dealers of a renewable-only future, the simple truth remains: renewables will never be reliable enough to power the modern world. If we want to tackle climate change, reduce emissions, and power the grid, then we need the proper mix of energy. We need to make sure that nuclear not only stays on the grid, but grows on it.
Dan Crenshaw represents the 2nd District of Texas and a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.