It wasn’t that long ago when gas prices were more than $4 a gallon and other energy costs were climbing as well. While the global economic downturn may have decreased pressure on energy prices, it is just a matter of time before economic growth once more pushes them higher. The challenges regarding our nation’s energy infrastructure, economic development, environment and the demands of society will then move energy onto the front burner. How these interests are balanced will be crucial to our quality of life, security and competitiveness in a global marketplace.
Unfortunately, many of the challenges we are confronting did not need to happen. Over the past 30 years, politicians enacted policies that may have sounded good at the time but placed roadblocks to developing the right sources of energy. For instance, due in part to fear and a lack of information, politicians put policies in place that effectively shut down the expansion of our nuclear energy industry while the rest of the civilized world grew theirs. Former President Jimmy Carter went so far as to prohibit the United States from recycling used nuclear fuel — right before the first U.S. facility to do so was about to become operational. The overall result was a skyrocketing national dependence on foreign sources of energy, affecting national security and the discharge of billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
We have not seen a new nuclear construction license issued since the late 1970s, and now the French are the leading experts in nuclear reprocessing technology. They took U.S. technology, improved it and have become a net energy exporter. These policies cost American jobs and dominance in at least some portions of the nuclear industry.
In the United States, energy companies largely abandoned the pursuit of clean non-polluting nuclear energy and instead relied on America’s most abundant source of energy — coal. Today, coal makes up the largest part of America’s energy portfolio, and politicians now condemn the energy industry for pursuing a path they were forced to follow. Government could have at least assisted by pursuing clean coal technology research for commercial use, but again failed.
Now, politicians are again trying to pick winners and losers by supporting some types of energy production to the detriment of others. This unwillingness to consider every option for our nation’s energy policy is dangerous and counterproductive.
America needs a diverse energy portfolio that can meet our baseload energy demand as well as peak demand. Our portfolio should include politically popular sources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy, but it must also include the hardworking, demand-meeting sources like natural gas, clean coal technology, domestic oil and nuclear energy. As former Greenpeace activist Patrick Moore admitted: “When I helped found Greenpeace in the 1970s, my colleagues and I were firmly opposed to nuclear energy. But times have changed. I now realize nuclear energy is the only non-greenhouse-gas-emitting power source that can effectively replace fossil fuels and satisfy growing demand for energy.”
Nuclear power is a proven component of our nation’s energy infrastructure with its ability to decrease emissions and lower fuel costs. Currently, nuclear power supplies 20 percent of America’s energy. Sadly, the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill ignores the benefits nuclear energy could provide.
I was pleased to hear President Barack Obama finally acknowledge in his State of the Union address the need to expand nuclear energy, even if it met a less-than-enthusiastic response from his party. I hope that remark was not just rhetoric, but a commitment, and that he will direct the Department of Energy to aggressively pursue making new plants a reality.
Meanwhile, U.S. foreign policy is helping expand the civilian use of nuclear power to countries such as India, the United Arab Emirates and others. Even Europe and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have recognized nuclear energy is the best option to curb carbon emissions. That is good for the rest of the world and it is good for the United States. I encourage Obama to act swiftly and aggressively.
There is no reason the United States should not play an aggressive and leading role in nuclear energy’s continued deployment. Reinvigorating our nuclear industry requires a highly educated work force for the high-paying jobs it creates, which will also ensure a reliable, affordable and cost-predictable source of energy for businesses in America.
Our energy problems did not occur overnight, nor will they be fixed overnight, but let’s not repeat history, either. Our economy needs an energy policy that is diverse and one that can supply abundant, affordable and environmentally friendly domestic energy resources. Every option must be on the table.
Right now, China and India are looking for and exploiting every competitive advantage they can find. If we do not have an abundant supply of energy, it will limit our economic growth and provide one more reason for businesses to pack up, move overseas and take their jobs with them. Our economy and the American people can no longer afford the political shortsightedness that has prevailed in the past when it comes to the development of nuclear and other energy sources available to us right here at home.
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) is the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs.
Clarification: Feb. 22, 2010
The article made reference to the views on nuclear energy of Patrick Moore, who is frequently described in news reports as a co-founder of Greenpeace. But Greenpeace objects to the characterization of Moore as a co-founder. According to the environmental and anti-nuclear group, Moore — who has been a vocal proponent of nuclear energy for more than a decade, sometimes as a paid employee of the Nuclear Energy Institute — joined Greenpeace about a year after its founding in 1970 and was active in its Canadian chapter for several years.