Energy & Environment

As Bipartisan Support for Nuclear Energy Grows in Congress, Progressives Should Reconsider Their Opposition

A farmer works in his field near the cooling towers at the nuclear power plant in Saint-Laurent-Nouan, France, in 2016. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)
Efforts to combat climate change must start with the most reliable source of carbon-free energy we have.

Any serious conversation about the future of America’s energy production must include nuclear energy, which accounts for 20 percent of all American energy production and 55 percent of American carbon-free-energy production. Unlike wind and solar, nuclear energy can be reliably supplied on demand, not just when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining. Nuclear-energy plants also have the advantage of using less land space than solar and wind farms.

In the past year, there has been an increased focus by both parties on global carbon output and the future of our environment. Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) has claimed that “climate change is a major national security threat and a global emergency.” Yet, in his Green New Deal plan, Senator Sanders also calls nuclear energy “a false solution” to the problem. If climate change is the “major national security threat” and the “global emergency” that Sanders claims it is, why is he against our nation’s best chance at reducing carbon emissions?

Not only does Sanders want to kill the largest source of carbon-free energy in the United States, he wants to kill the industry that harvests it — an industry that employs 100,000 people across our nation. These are high-wage, high-skill American jobs, and they would vanish if he had his way.

We are at a critical moment for the future of nuclear energy in the United States and worldwide. Russia and China have both surpassed the U.S. as the world’s leading producers of nuclear reactors. Within the next two years, China is expected to become the second-leading global producer of nuclear energy, and if we do not change course, it will overtake the United States for the top spot on the list by 2030. That would leave us in a weak position to influence the future of nuclear-energy development, and it would mean falling behind China at the moment when we can least afford it.

Thankfully, President Trump, unlike Senator Sanders, has supported the development and deployment of nuclear power. Under Trump’s leadership, the Department of Energy has begun to work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to accelerate the deployment of advanced nuclear reactors, which will be safer and more versatile. In December of 2019, the NRC approved an early site permit for the Tennessee Valley Authority to build a small modular reactor at the Clinch River Site, in my district in Tennessee. In 2018, Congress passed and the president signed the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, which eliminated financial and technological barriers that stood in the way of American nuclear innovation.

Those steps are reflective of a bipartisan consensus growing in Congress, and of a White House willing to support it. The United States cannot afford to continue to backslide from its position as a world leader in nuclear-energy research and development, and Congress has begun to recognize as much. In the past few years, we have made progress on nuclear innovation, and it would be a disservice to all Americans if that bipartisan work were to stop. If Sanders and other progressives want to get serious about actively reducing global carbon emissions, I’d encourage them to reconsider their opposition to the most reliable source of carbon-free energy in the United States.

Chuck Fleischmann has served as the United States representative for Tennessee's 3rd congressional district since 2011.

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