Safe, secure nuclear energy must be part of climate change solution
Nuclear energy seems to be emerging from a 30-year drought of public enthusiasm, write guest columnists Paul Dickerson and Adam Grosser. But with technology advances and a pro-nuclear president, nuclear energy promises to be an important part of climate-change solutions.
Special to The Times
FOR an industry that couldn't buy any love over the past three decades, it sure must feel like Valentine's Day to nuclear-energy supporters.
First, they were treated to unprecedented policy support from the Obama administration. In the span of several weeks, the president linked new nuclear plants to clean-energy jobs during his State of the Union address, proposed tripling federal loan guarantees for nuclear plants, and kicked off the first wave of reactor construction in the U.S. in more than 30 years by agreeing to financially support two new reactors in Georgia.
Then, late last month, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates gave the industry a vote of confidence of a different sort. A Gates-funded energy startup, the Bellevue-based TerraPower, confirmed that it's talking with Toshiba Corp. about developing a small-scale nuclear reactor that would make nuclear power safer and cheaper.
Those who haven't been monitoring the industry's progress since a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 might think all of the attention is unwarranted. But a lot has changed since then. Importantly, there hasn't been a single serious safety lapse, thanks to improved safety measures and regulations.
Meanwhile, our nation's energy demand has soared, and it's projected to surge another 23 percent by 2030. Nuclear energy is in a prime position to deliver that payload — and in an environmentally responsible way.
As Obama is fully aware, nuclear energy quietly powers one out of every five U.S. homes and businesses. But because nuclear plants produce virtually no carbon emissions, they contribute a disproportionate amount of our emissions-free electricity — nearly 75 percent. No other electricity source comes even close.
Some of the industry's critics maintain that every dollar spent on nuclear energy is a dollar taken away from truly renewable sources such as solar or wind. The problem with these "either-or" comparisons is that even under the rosiest of scenarios for our future electricity supplies, our country is going to need "all of the above" when it comes to meeting our surging energy demand.
In fact, a recent Energy Information Administration analysis concluded that the nation will need to double its reliance on nuclear energy by 2030 to keep consumer costs down and meet the emissions goals established in the House's Waxman-Markey climate bill.
Of course, we can always do better, which is why smart investors like Gates are betting on next-generation nuclear technologies such as small-scale reactors. Estimated at one-tenth the cost of a big nuclear plant, small-scale reactors can be manufactured quickly and installed at existing sites or in lieu of coal-fired plants. TerraPower believes its reactor technology could run for decades on depleted uranium without needing to refuel, dramatically reducing the amount of waste that needs to be treated or stored.
Recycling spent nuclear fuel is another option wisely being considered by a new blue-ribbon commission recently convened by the Energy Department. Japan, France and Britain are already putting such technology to use, reusing up to 95 percent of spent uranium.
Congress is also mulling several proposed bills that would fund research into power derived from thorium, which leaves behind minuscule amounts of waste compared with uranium.
If necessity truly is the mother of invention, then we need to beat a sense of urgency into the national energy debate instead of relegating nuclear energy and other trusted energy technologies to the margins. Nuclear energy may not be the only solution to our energy and environmental challenges, but there is no solution without it.Paul Dickerson, left, leads Haynes and Boone LLP's Cleantech Practice Group out of Houston. He served as chief operating officer at the U.S Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy from 2006 to 2008. Adam Grosser is the managing director of Foundation Capital, an IT-focused venture-capital firm based in Silicon Valley.