Nuclear power and U.S. energy policy

Our recent columns have raised questions regarding the relative amounts of federal funding going to various energy options. As advocates of efficiency and renewable energy, we are concerned that renewables are still not funded at levels that will allow them to capture a significant amount of the energy marketplace. The nuclear power option, which appeared to be gradually fading from the scene, has gained new life from recent administrative initiatives.

This increased visibility has brought out the pro- and anti-nuclear forces with a new intensity. A pro-nuclear power argument was recently advanced by John K. Sutherland in the article, “Nuclear Power Comparisons and Perspective.” Dave Kraft, representing the Nuclear Energy Information Services in Evanston, continues to call attention to the downside of nuclear power. Rather than address the pros and cons of generating electricity from nuclear power, it seems appropriate to place the issue in a historical perspective.

After dropping the world’s first atomic bombs, the Truman administration retained the right to use nuclear weapons while discouraging other countries from acquiring them. Interestingly, President Harry Truman also commissioned a study that proposed introducing a transition to solar energy. During the Eisenhower administration, the solar transition was sidelined in favor of peaceful uses of the atom.

In the article “Atoms for Peace,” Leonard Weiss details the history of attempts to turn the destructive power of nuclear energy into peaceful uses. The achilles heel of peaceful use is that plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, is a byproduct of generating electricity from nuclear power. Therefore, peaceful uses are intertwined with potential military uses. Current events in Iran and North Korea illustrate the problem.

The Atoms for Peace program has had multiple beneficial effects. Nuclear power plants have been a significant source of electrical generation. Although operating costs are relatively low, the total costs of nuclear power plants proved too high to compete with coal and natural gas plants.

As fossil fuel supplies decline and energy prices rise, nuclear advocates anticipate our country will be forced to turn to nuclear power to meet our energy needs. The pending energy bill has substantial funds for research and development of nuclear power plants based on new designs that proponents claim will provide clean, abundant, safe power for the future.

While energy efficiency and renewable energy sources will benefit from the energy bill, the level of support they receive will not match that given to fossil fuels and nuclear power. Therefore, efficiency and renewable energy sources will not move into the marketplace at a rate comparable to their potential. While many members of the renewable energy industry are supporting the bill as is, their support appears influenced by short-term interests.

Renewables are ready to meet societal needs for jobs and clean, secure and sustainable energy supplies. Including a renewable energy portfolio standard of 20 percent by 2020 in the new energy legislation would ensure that society gains the full benefit from their potential.

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