The nuclear option

When I was in elementary school, a small college near my house installed a single wind turbine on its campus as a symbol of their commitment to alternative energy. I was so enamored by this spinning giant that I dreamed of attending a school with a wind turbine.

We all know how this story ends — IU boasts a prominent coal plant, and there’s not a turbine in sight. While IU has a long way to go in building a sustainable campus (a goal championed by student groups and administrators alike), the jump from cheap, energy-producing coal plants to rooftops of solar panels clustered in fields of wind farms is obviously not happening overnight.

President Barack Obama has acknowledged the need for an energy policy that will serve as a bridge from dirty, foreign fossil fuels to clean and domestically produced energy sources.

On Feb. 16, the president announced federal loan guarantees that will support the construction of the first new nuclear power plant on U.S. soil in almost 30 years.

Before Obama began to push the national dialogue in this direction, nuclear energy often seemed to be the missing link few wanted to discuss. In many circles, renewable resources dominate the discourse, and many ignore the high costs that make solar, wind and hydroelectric power infeasible options for producing the majority of America’s power in the next few decades.

While these groups tend to point out the high cost of nuclear energy, part of that is because of the more than 20-year lapse in building new plants. Construction like that which Obama announced last week will make use of technologies that should bring those costs down.

In addition to cost, the critiques of nuclear energy production from staunch supporters of wind and solar tend to overstate the environmental impact of nuclear plants by including the secondary impacts of nuclear energy as a carbon source.

But producing wind turbines and solar panels also creates emissions, and nuclear plants are already significantly limiting American carbon output. The admittedly biased Nuclear Energy Institute found that, “By using nuclear energy rather than fossil fuel-based plants, electric utilities prevented 689 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States in 2008.”

While the Obama administration has yet to reveal a proposal for dealing with spent fuel after dismissing the unpopular plan of storing waste in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, last week’s announcement should be welcome news to a wide range of Americans who will reap the benefits.

Environmentalists who are realistic will recognize the value of nuclear power as a domestically produced and cleaner alternative to coal and natural gas.

Workers in Georgia, where the new plant will be built, will enjoy steady paychecks, and policymakers may even be able to bring Republicans on board with an energy bill that focuses on nuclear as a clean, domestic source of energy.


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