Politics & Policy

The Conservative Case for Nuclear Energy

Wind-power turbines near Palm Springs, Calif. (Reuters photo: Eric Thayer)
It’s reliable, safe, and, unlike solar and wind, doesn’t eat up huge swathes of land.

As the Trump transition team prepares to take power in Washington, they should be making the conservative case for nuclear energy.

During the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump declared: “Nuclear power is a valuable source of energy and should be part of an all-the-above program for providing power for America long into the future. We can make nuclear power safer, and its outputs are extraordinary given the investment we should make.”

Being pro-nuclear doesn’t require adhering to any particular orthodoxy on climate change or greenhouse gases. Conservatives should support America’s nuclear-energy sector for three reasons: generation diversity, technological leadership, and land sparing.

Before going further, let’s be clear: The U.S. nuclear sector is in crisis. Over the past three years, utilities from Vermont to California have shuttered six reactors, and another five are slated to close. The most recent announced closure, of the 800-megawatt Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan, came just days after Illinois legislators passed a bill that will provide subsidies to keep three reactors in that state in operation. While it’s unclear how many reactors may ultimately be prematurely shuttered, the Center for Energy Economics at the University of Texas has estimated that up to 40 percent of all U.S. nuclear capacity could be closed over the next decade or so.

Many factors are to blame for the nuclear sector’s woes, including low natural-gas prices, aging reactors, post-Fukushima regulations, and heavily subsidized wind and solar. The result is that many reactors can’t make money selling their electricity into wholesale markets, where prices are at, or near, 15-year lows.

What is to be done? President-elect Trump and Congress should move to preserve existing reactors and pave the way for the next generation of safer, cheaper reactors. To be sure, keeping existing reactors will require some of them to get financial help. But those subsidies will help the U.S. maintain a diverse set of generation assets. The polar vortex in early 2014, when extreme cold led to a surge in electricity demand, proved the importance of that diversity. During that time, numerous coal- and natural gas-fired plants faltered, but America’s reactor fleet operated at 95 percent of its capacity. Without those plants, large parts of the country could have been hit by blackouts.

Many conservatives might balk at the idea of providing financial assistance to nuclear utilities, the reality is that cheap, abundant, reliable electricity is a public good. Electricity is the lifeblood of the economy. America’s economy is doing well compared with that in other developed countries for several reasons. But a big reason is that the United States has some of the cheapest electricity in the world. Throughout its history, the domestic electricity sector has tussled between public interest and private profit. America’s nuclear fleet, which now provides about 20 percent of all the electricity we consume, and about two-thirds of our zero-carbon electricity, is a tremendously valuable asset that we ignore or discard at our peril. 

Wind energy’s land footprint is about 530 times as large as that of a nuclear plant, and solar energy’s footprint is about 145 times as large.

Retaining and expanding America’s nuclear capacity will help assure technological leadership. America has been leading the global nuclear sector since the days of the Manhattan Project. We produce about twice as much electricity by splitting atoms as France does, but our decades-long lead over the rest of the world has evaporated. In fact, the U.S. has become an also-ran in the deployment of nuclear technology. Last month, Japan and India agreed on a deal that will allow Japanese companies to export nuclear-power equipment and technology to India. In addition, companies from Russia, China, and South Korea are moving to acquire customers around the world.

To maintain America’s nuclear leadership role, the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should expedite the development and deployment of next-generation reactors that are safer and cheaper than those in the existing fleet. There are many promising designs in the works, including molten-salt reactors. But the permitting process for new reactors is onerous and prohibitively expensive. The nuclear industry needs federal support that will allow us to use the national labs owned and operated by the Department of Energy. In addition, the Trump administration should be certain that its appointees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are focused on streamlining the permitting process for new reactors.

The final reason to preserve and extend our nuclear fleet is clear if we look at one of nuclear energy’s greatest virtues: its unsurpassed power density. Renewable energy has many proponents, but those proponents seldom, if ever, discuss the landscape-destroying energy sprawl that inevitably accompanies large-scale wind and solar projects. The Breakthrough Institute has estimated that wind energy’s land footprint is about 530 times as large as that of a nuclear plant, and solar energy’s footprint is about 145 times as large. Furthermore, as I showed in a recent report for the Manhattan Institute, “This Land Was Your Land,” a major push for renewable energy will require stringing tens of thousands of miles of new high-voltage transmission lines across rural America.

#related#Keeping existing nuclear plants operating while developing new ones will help spare the landscape from energy development. Conserving the natural world has long been part of the conservative outlook. Few Republicans understood this better than Theodore Roosevelt, who once declared that of all the questions facing our country, few compare “in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants.”

Americans have long taken pride in technological leadership. Few areas demonstrate that leadership better than the nuclear-energy sector. The new administration can, and should, begin working to make American nuclear great again.


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