Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran a pros and cons piece on nuclear power. The text debate was not an outright endorsement of nuclear energy, but it was another piece of evidence that America must get serious about nuclear energy very soon and start tackling the difficult questions. While the article advocates expansion of all alternative sources, such as wind and solar, it makes a compelling point that many consumers fail to realize:
But we have to be realistic about the limits of these alternatives. As it is, the 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. generate about a fifth of the nation’s energy. Wind accounts for about 1%, and solar even less than that. More important from the standpoint of displacing fossil fuel, nuclear can meet power demand 24 hours a day. Solar and wind can’t do that. Nuclear is the only current technology that fits the bill.”
The article does well to address the key concerns associated with nuclear energy, specifically, cost and safety. In the “cons” part of the piece, author Michael Totty declares that a new reactor will cost somewhere between $6 and $9 billion and that restricted supply is resulting in the skyrocketing costs for new build. Furthermore, the lack of engineers and construction workers specific to nuclear is contributing to upward pressures on the costs.
Yet, cost problems are not specific to the nuclear industry. Energy and construction prices are escalating across the board. Much of the increase is a result of rising commodity prices for products like cement, steel, and copper. The truth is that coal, wind, and solar projects are all becoming increasingly expensive. If those sources were inexpensive, few would even consider building new nuclear plants, yet nearly 20 companies are pursuing construction and operating licenses for up to 30 new reactors.
Then there’s safety and nuclear waste disposal. As for safety Totty hits the nail on the head when he says, “The entire nuclear power industry is vulnerable to the safety standards of its worst performers,” which is why anti-nuclear activists continually bring up the near-meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island. However, no one died at TMI and the most recent and comprehensive study was a thirteen-year evaluation of 32,000 people living in the area that found no adverse health effects or links to cancer.
As for nuclear waste, or used nuclear fuel, it’s clear reform is needed. The current system of managing used nuclear fuel has been broken for years, and it has resulted in billions of dollars of taxpayer liability. The Heritage Foundation’s Jack Spencer recently outlined a system that would completely and efficiently privatize the management of spent nuclear fuel. This free market approach will take significant overhaul, but it is also the most rational method for ensuring the long-term sustainability of nuclear energy in America.