Nuclear Energy: No Time for U.S. to Fall Behind

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Listening to current conventional wisdom, you often hear that we don’t need to build new baseload. The economy isn’t expanding that quickly, energy efficiency will absorb new demand, and some regions are still awash in power, goes the argument. Every state and electricity market is complex, and in some places that argument, or parts of it, may ring true. But in state after state, policymakers and other stakeholders are making lasting decisions today that will impact our energy future for decades. Federal lawmakers are again considering major energy legislation and inquiring about the state of electricity markets.

The Energy Information Administration has projected that between now and 2040 (sounds far away, but today’s toddlers will be graduating from college), total electricity sales will rise 0.7% annually. Sales in the commercial sector are seen as likely to surpass residential sector sales in the early 2020s.

As Americans acquire more devices (I travel with one laptop and two iPhones these days) and electric vehicles, and 2040 gets closer, will we have enough power at the ready? Or will today’s energy policy decisions turn out to be future-limiting? Some advocate for closing down existing plants in favor of building up innovative energy sources. However, if we fail to look ahead and really take stock of what we have and what we’ll need, do we risk mothballing our country’s economy, too?

Nuclear plants seem to have been particularly hard-hit by the current fad for shutting down baseload plants that still have potential for contributing clean electrons at an affordable price. Unfortunately, economic pressures have caused our domestic commercial nuclear industry to pull back on construction of new reactors or retire existing reactors before the end of their useful lives. Activists have demanded closures of other plants. But is shutting down nuclear plants now akin to taking the spare bedroom off your house just because no guests are coming this year?

Nuclear currently provides approximately 20 percent of the power consumed in the U.S. each year, and over half of our emission-free energy. Even as wind and utility-scale solar continue to develop and bring value to energy consumers, the lion’s share of carbon-free power is generated at nuclear power stations. These plants also contribute to grid reliability, and provide thousands of good jobs for skilled workers. The U.S. led the world in creating the nuclear industry, but now other countries are zooming ahead. An estimated 60 reactors are under construction around the world, with only four in the U.S. China is working to double its nuclear fleet, while Rosatom, a Russian state-owned company, has plans to build new reactors in India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Vietnam, Iran, Armenia, Hungary, Jordan and Egypt and many others. Bloomberg estimates 58% growth in global power demand by 2040. While that may outpace domestic power consumption in the same period, it still leads us to wonder: What do these nations know about the economics of nuclear energy that may be eluding U.S. policymakers and pundits?

PACE is concerned that short-term thinking about nuclear generation will lead to our nation losing a valuable power source that provides a range of benefits for consumers, energy workers, the economy and our storehouse of intelligence on advanced nuclear technology.

Fortunately, some policymakers are taking concrete actions in support of nuclear energy. The House of Representatives recently voted to extend production tax credits for nuclear power. The bipartisan bill would allow four reactors currently under construction in Georgia and South Carolina more flexibility to use tax credits that Congress created over a decade ago. Thank your Members of the House of Representatives when you see them over August recess. And, encourage your Senators to take up this important bill in the fall. In other good news, the Department of Energy (DOE) has announced nearly $67 million in funding for new grants for advanced nuclear research, to be distributed among several research programs.

It will take much more advocacy, congressional fortitude, and education about the value of nuclear energy to restore America’s leadership role and ensure that policy decisions support reliable, affordable, clean energy and a vibrant economy in 2020, 2040 and beyond. Today’s toddlers are counting on us. And if all goes well, the economy will need the spare bedroom.