- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

To enhance America’s national security and energy security over the long term, it is imperative that the United States expand its use of nuclear power. To this end, it is encouraging that the nuclear power industry has enthusiastically welcomed the incentives contained in the energy bill that Congress has just approved.

The need for more nuclear power plants is straightforward. Annual electricity demand in the United States is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2025, according to the Energy Information Administration. The forecast assumes that huge increases in the use of greenhouse-gas-emitting fossil fuels will be necessary to meet this demand. Electricity generated by coal-fired power plants, for example, is expected to increase by more than 45 percent, rising from less than 2,000 billion kilowatt-hours in 2003 to nearly 2,900 in 2025. Electricity generated by natural gas, another fossil fuel, is expected to soar by nearly 125 percent, rising from less than 650 billion kwh in 2003 to more than 1,400 in 2025.

The United States has adequate supplies of coal. Over the long run, however, much of the natural gas needed to meet its projected electric-power role will have to be imported from overseas. In fact, in order to prepare for America’s increased dependency upon foreign natural gas, a major provision in the energy bill gives the exclusive authority to approve import terminals for liquefied natural gas to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, rather than state governments.

As it happens, Russia and the Middle East (particularly Iran and Qatar) control nearly 70 percent of the world’s proven reserves of natural gas, whose electric-power-generating price has increased from $2 per thousand cubic feet in 1995 to nearly $7 this year. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has signaled his intention to cartelize the natural-gas market in the same way OPEC has established a cartel for oil. In an era when national security is inextricably linked to energy security, it would be counterproductive for the United States to become overly dependent on overseas natural gas, whose supply is controlled by nations that do not have America’s best interests at heart. Worldwide uranium supplies, on the other hand, may not present comparable problems.

Given the fact that no nuclear power plants have been ordered since 1973, the Energy Department’s electricity forecast understandably assumes that “no new nuclear units are expected to become operable between [now] and 2025.” However, it would be a travesty if the trends in America’s electricity output followed the forecast’s fossil-fuel path. The emission-free benefits of nuclear power, which generates no greenhouse gases and has markedly improved its safety record and efficiency, are too substantial to forego. On the efficiency front, the industry has raised its capacity-utilization rate from 70 percent in the early 1990s to 90 percent in recent years. That improvement alone has had the equivalent impact of adding 18 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plants. This dramatically improved efficiency has been responsible for nuclear power’s ability to retain its 20-percent share of the nation’s growing electricity output without building new plants. However, efficiency improvements are approaching their natural limits, and new nuclear power plants will be necessary in order for the nuclear industry to retain its vital share of output.

Environmentalists should applaud the fact that emission-free, nuclear-generated electricity annually avoids the release of nearly 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in the United States. In 2003, according to the EIA, “83 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions consisted of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal, petroleum and natural gas.” Carbon-dioxide emissions from the U.S. electric power sector, which have increased 27.5 percent since 1990, today comprise nearly 40 percent of total U.S. energy-related carbon-dioxide emissions. Emission-free nuclear power each year also avoids releasing into America’s air more than 1 million tons of nitrogen oxide (a pollutant that contributes to ozone and smog) and nearly 3.5 million tons of sulfur dioxide (a major pollutant that damages plants, reduces crop productivity and causes irritation of the eyes, nose and throat). Thus, any increase in the use of nuclear power would ipso facto reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, including pollutants, from levels they would otherwise reach.

The nuclear-power industry believes that several important incentives included in the recent energy bill could increase nuclear’s role in future electricity output. In an effort to jump-start the industry, one provision would offset the financial impact resulting from construction and other delays for which the industry is not responsible. This offset would be worth up to $500 million for each of the first two reactors and up to $250 million apiece for the next four. Ideally, this provision would precipitate a race to qualify for the incentives. Other incentives include production tax credits and loan guarantees for advanced-design nuclear plants, as well as $1.25 billion in funding for a prototype Next Generation Nuclear Plant project.

Considering the national-security implications related to our dependence on imported oil today and imported natural gas in the future, these incentives are well worth their nominal cost. Other industrialized nations prudently use nuclear-power to generate much higher percentages of electricity: France, 78 percent; Sweden, 50 percent; South Korea, 40 percent; Germany, 28 percent; and Japan, 25 percent. The nuclear power industry should take advantage of the incentives so that the United States can join those nations.

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