After years of interacting with members of the public and policymakers about American energy policy, there aren’t many questions I haven’t heard. Many casual observers of energy inquire about the future of traditional energy sources, which prompts some discussion on my part about the importance of reliability and balance. Others ask with puzzlement why the U.S. is dragging its feet on renewable power sources, an area of significant misinformation I am glad to correct and clarify.
Almost invariably, however, there is a question about nuclear energy. Even on Saturday, after I made a presentation at my alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalist vision for America and the role of the individual in making our nation better (the topic of my undergraduate research nearly twenty years ago), the second question from the audience was about nuclear power. It was a question about nuclear power I am not normally asked: “What happens if we abandon nuclear power?”
If you have read PACE’s regular commentary on the state of American nuclear power, my answer would not have been surprising. I reinforced the need for a balanced energy portfolio and underscored the importance of sources such as nuclear power and fossil fuels capable of running around the clock with limited disruption. I clarified the role of nuclear power as often the source first dispatched by grid managers, because of its low operational cost. Finally, I dispelled what I consider to be irrational concerns over spent nuclear fuel storage and public safety hazards. Hopefully, my response laid the predicate for a better understanding of nuclear’s role in the American energy landscape.
In light of that question on Saturday, I was intrigued just two days later to see a very insightful piece in Forbes from Drs. David Gattie and Scott Jones from Georgia. Dr. Gattie is an associate professor of environmental engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia who conducts solar power research, while Dr. Jones serves as director of the Center for International Trade and Security in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. Their piece, entitled “An America Without Nuclear Power,” strikes at the heart of the question posed to me over the weekend in Hattiesburg. What does an energy future without nuclear power look like?
Gattie and Jones explain that some opponents of nuclear power contend that commercial nuclear power in the U.S. has no future, arguing instead for a “chimerical renewable-energy-only economy,” as the authors put it. Gattie and Jones disagree with that contention, as I do, pointing out that “a U.S. exit from nuclear, whether intentional or by market attrition, would threaten U.S. national security in at least three ways.” According to the authors, abandoning nuclear power would A) widen the knowledge gap on nuclear development between us and the world’s economic, industrial, and military powers, B) create a dangerous dependence on intermittent power sources, which threatens disruptions to power supply, and C) abdicate the role of U.S. leadership in the global nuclear community.
As Drs. Gattie and Jones make clear, “State-owned nuclear companies in Russia and China have taken the lead in offering nuclear power plants to emerging countries, usually with finance and fuel services.” Do we really want to give the reins of the commercial nuclear power sector worldwide over to the Russians and Chinese? Doing so would seem to carry with it a number of geopolitical and national security implications that are difficult to ignore.
“This is not an issue of nuclear versus renewables—both should occupy space in the U.S. portfolio. This is an issue of national security and global leadership, and U.S. policymakers should work aggressively with U.S. industry to ensure that nuclear power remains viable,” the authors write. “An America without nuclear power is a less secure America and a globally less relevant America. Perhaps more sobering, an America without nuclear power is a world with an America that has limited or no institutional knowledge of nuclear science and engineering—and that is a world we’ve never known.”
Well said. Hopefully, the right audiences are listening.