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Environment & Energy Report

INSIGHT: NELA—A Big, Bipartisan Opportunity for Nuclear Power

Oct. 9, 2019, 8:00 AM

Nuclear science is hard, and most Americans don’t realize how close our country is to losing the skills and experience needed to engineer, construct, and operate nuclear reactors—something that will have deleterious effects on national security, electricity reliability, and the climate.

On Sept. 20, Three Mile Island shuttered for good after decades of service providing power to customers across Pennsylvania. The generator’s closure underscores a grim fact: Our nuclear fleet is aging rapidly and struggling to remain competitive even as the demand for clean renewable energy continues to climb. Without investment in education, research and development, and reactor design, America risks falling behind in this critical area.

Like other reactors across the country, Three Mile Island struggled to compete with cheap natural gas and an energy policy, which rewards some forms of carbon free-electricity (wind and solar), while ignoring the benefits of nuclear power.

American scientists first ushered in the atomic age more than 70 years ago, but in more recent years we have begun to lose our past dominance in nuclear engineering. Right now, there are only two new reactor units under construction, both part of the Vogtle project in Georgia. This project is over budget and behind schedule, something that will undoubtedly make other utilities wary of embarking on similar projects.

Stop America’s Nuclear Bran Drain

Without better technology and legislative action, utilities are unlikely to invest in nuclear power. It is past time for Congress to take action to stop America’s nuclear brain drain.

The Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA), sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) in the Senate with a House companion by Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), is a bipartisan proposal to support the continued development of American advanced nuclear technologies by boosting investment in research and development, fuel security, and workforce development.

This legislation addresses the short, middle, and long-term needs of the nuclear generation industry over the next decade. It would establish goals that align federal lab and private-sector efforts to help accelerate nuclear power generation, while also supporting research and development to ensure the safety and reliability necessary to license new, state-of-the-art concepts.

The proposal also provides a minimum amount of reactor fuel for developers until a long-term supply is produced and support scholarships for nuclear engineering students.

Red tape and lengthy, costly permitting processes pose challenges to advancing our nuclear innovation and place the U.S. at risk of lagging behind China, which is building more reactors both at home and in foreign countries, and Russia, which is working to control more of America’s uranium supply and is the largest nuclear energy exporter.

A proposal like NELA is long overdue. The U.S. was the first nation to commercialize nuclear power in the mid-20th century and remained a global leader in the nuclear space for decades, but has failed to continue to build on this foundation in recent years. We need to spark new interest in nuclear energy at all levels, from college students and university research to utility companies and everyday Americans.

Lawmakers on the right and left agree that modernizing our electric grid with more nuclear power is a good pathway to the affordable, zero-carbon energy American consumers desire. The bill has already collected 13 cosponsors in the House and 17 in the Senate and Republicans have listed it as climate legislation they are willing to work on now.

In addition, it won the endorsement of the New Democratic Coalition, which made it part of their agenda to promote a swift transition to renewable energy.

Nuclear power has an important role to play in a clean energy future. It remains our best source of scalable carbon-free electricity. Reactors help to ensure a steady baseload of power even with the sun is not shining and the wind isn’t blowing and supply around 20 percent of America’s electricity at present. As renewables become a larger part of our energy mix, reliable generation sources like nuclear power will only become more important.

America was a nuclear innovator in the past and can be so again—if we take the right steps now. By doing so, we can become a global leader in clean energy technology that can help the world meet its zero-carbon energy goals. As Sen. Cory Booker (D, N.J.), one of NELA’s sponsors said: “It’s imperative for the United States to lead the way on tackling the world’s climate crisis and that must include the development of clean and innovative technologies like next generation nuclear energy.”

This means not only investing in new reactor designs, but also in nuclear science and engineering. NELA would also invest in education, helping to ensure that we are training today the workers who will operate the advanced nuclear reactors of the future.

Advancing our nuclear energy industry through innovation and cutting-edge technology can strengthen the economy, preserve U.S. global leadership, and improve air quality. NELA provides a bipartisan map to guide the U.S. to that future.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Sarah E. Hunt is co-founder and CEO of the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy. Previously, she ran clean energy and climate change programs at the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Niskanen Center.