The current environmental movement is driven mostly by concerns about sustainability coupled with energy independence and the threat of global climate change. While we have made progress through more efficient cars, eating locally and switching to compact florescent light bulbs, the vast majority of our electricity comes from technology that dumps carbon dioxide and other dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere. The number of wind farms has grown precipitously in the past few years, but these farms lack the potential to make up for our reliance on coal, oil and natural gas plants.
Every method for generating electricity has tradeoffs (some more obvious than others). We often read of coal miners trapped in cave-ins far below ground while at the same time the emissions generated by these plants heat the planet and pollute our air. Natural gas and oil both have different problems with extraction and with transportation but the same issue with pollution. Despite these significant shortcomings, these three options currently rule the energy market. Hydroelectric plants once seemed like a great way to provide sustainable power but it turns out that blocking rivers causes serious damage to the surrounding ecosystems and the communities downstream.
Even among those who believe that wind power has a role to play in our energy grid, few people want one 300 feet from their house or decorating the top of the nearest mountain. The places people want them generally tend to have less wind. Solar energy cultivation shows promise but, as with most renewable, it requires a lot of space and an expensive investment in technology.
The time has come to renew the construction of nuclear power plants. Despite high-profile failures — Three Mile Island and the recent issues with Vermont Yankee come to mind — nuclear power is safer, cleaner and more efficient than our current options. Nuclear fuel does not come from the Middle East and the reactions in one of these plants do not launch carbon or other chemicals into the atmosphere. A single nuclear plant produces more electricity than 1,500 large wind turbines — far more than even the largest wind “farms.” Nuclear presents the solution for moving forward.
40 years ago, the United States was constructing fission plants at a dramatic rate. In part due to protests and safety concerns, new development ceased abruptly. Yet much of Europe still relies on it as a source of power — France currently produces nearly 80 percent of its electricity through nuclear power while the EU as a whole uses it for 30 percent. We can achieve this with the market incentives as well.
Incredibly high start-up costs prevent new nuclear development. Only government action can prevent fossil fuel-based power sources from continuing their stranglehold on the American electricity market. We have seen this in the government’s approach to renewable energy, where producers are given a rate of 1.9 cents per kilowatt hour to allow them to compete in the marketplace.
President Barack Obama recently pledged to extend this tax credit to the next four nuclear power plants constructed in this country. In addition, the government will guarantee the loans for these plants in order to offset the risk of the investment in an unsure market. Congress and the President should extend this guarantee once plans get underway for more plants and should consider directly loaning money to companies interested in constructing new facilities in order to build momentum and attract investors. If Congress ever allows the creation of a “cap and trade” system to reduce carbon emissions, nuclear energy would become a much more competitive option. But even without legislation that raises the cost of competing energy sources, these loans will be repaid as plants pay off their start-up capital.
No source of energy is perfect. Nuclear power is cleaner, more efficient and is our only technology that can provide the electricity to replace fossil fuels. For the 21st century and beyond, as we improve our ability to capitalize on the massive supplies of power contained in a single atom, nuclear power is the ultimate source of “green” energy.