Breaking barriers to nuclear power

$6.5 billion loan for nuclear sets vital precedent for future of energy

On February 20, 2014

Tackling climate change and reducing carbon emissions begins with dismissing outmoded ways of thinking, including fears about nuclear energy.

Yesterday, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced a $6.5 billion loan deal between the Obama administration and the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Company. The deal will support the construction of two nuclear reactors at the Georgia power plant. These reactors will be the first constructed on U.S. soil in nearly three decades.

The agreement could not come soon enough. The defining problem our generation will face is climate change due to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. And like the proverbial frog being cooked in water that is slowly brought to a boil, we, too, are slowly being cooked - as the atmosphere around us is getting warmer.

The only way to escape the boiling pot is with a broad-based effort that includes all available resources. This effort has to include nuclear energy, despite its sordid past and contentious future.

Moniz's announcement was quickly met with criticism from environmental groups such as Environmental America and Friends of the Earth, which responded with attempts to loosely connect this project with the Fukishima disaster in 2011.

"Fewer than three years have passed since the tragedy at Fukishima demonstrated that nuclear reactors can never be safe," Friends of the Earth Nuclear Campaigner Katherine Fuchs said in a statement.

Nuclear power and the reactors involved in its production certainly pose some potential risks, as do most forms of energy generation. But Fukishima displayed a need for careful regulation. It didn't prove that nuclear power is never safe.

The greater carbon dioxide emissions these reactors will eliminate, however, would be unsafe, irresponsible and unconscionable.

Nuclear energy poses threats in the form of a potential meltdown, and certain risks in the form of nuclear waste. These issues can be mitigated and carefully handled, as we work toward developing alternative energy sources.

The plan for the future should not be complete reliance on nuclear. Movements toward truly renewable energy sources should not be precluded by this deal.

But climate change is no longer a looming threat. It is a daily reality, and supporting the proven effectiveness of nuclear in meeting high-energy needs is an important stopgap measure.

With last year's revelation that atmospheric carbon dioxide has passed 400 parts per million, according to readings by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and devastating changes in weather patterns, the time for baseless fears and debates has passed.

Now is the time for meaningful action, with tangible, immediate effects as opposed to just research and development.

Nuclear doubtlessly has a stigma surrounding it. The word conjures images of Chernobyl, men in Hazmat suits and Fukishima headlines. Those opposing nuclear development all handily leverage these events - and our fears.

To conquer climate change, we must move beyond misconceptions and doubts they breed toward energy sources we don't understand.

The fear generated by sensational headlines on nuclear energy has limited nuclear development in the world. Though America has 100 commercial reactors, none of those were built later than the 1970s, primarily due to national panic following the near disaster on Three-Mile Island in 1979.

Globally, following Fukishima, nuclear power has seen a drop in popularity. Germany, Belgium and Switzerland, for example, are all decommissioning nuclear plants after anti-nuclear protests erupted, using the disaster as a flashpoint for public outrage.

But Fukishima was an anomaly, a tragic disaster that was but a small wrinkle in a long history of safe, effective nuclear energy production.

Disasters are important to consider, as ways to understand and prevent future issues. But legislating and policy-making based on disasters, not pragmatic realism, is the real danger, particularly when climate change marches forward.

This deal sets a powerful, and necessary, precedent. It allows for a new generation of safer, more efficient reactors in this country and shifts the global conversation toward pragmatism and away from demonizing.

Most importantly, it meets both the realities of our growing energy demands with a plan that will not add to atmospheric carbon dioxide or get caught into doomed environmental utopianism, like the expensive Solyndra debacle in which hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars were lost in a failed attempt to explore solar power.

Alternatives must continue to be explored and appropriate plans for nuclear waste must continue to be proposed. But dire problems, like climate change, require immediate solutions.

If not, today's realities will eventually reach a boiling point long before our fantastic fears are ever realized.



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