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Memo to the President-Elect (Part 1)

A clear and present need for nuclear energy expansion.

Fortnightly Magazine - November 2008

replacing existing and potential future fossil-fueled power plants with nuclear plants would create well-paying, high technology jobs involved with modernizing and rebuilding the nation’s manufacturing infrastructure. This commitment also would help the United States retain money it now spends on energy imports— i.e., by replacing the transportation fleet with vehicles that don’t need imported oil, and by reducing the need for imported natural gas.

It also would help the United States regain its position as the leading supplier of components for the nuclear plants that are needed worldwide—such as the roughly 300 now planned for construction. The new administration can support all of this explicitly by encouraging greater reliance on nuclear energy across all sectors of the economy, by reiterating that this is an energy security and environmental protection concern—as well as providing an economic benefit to the nation—and by using the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to support nuclear energy.

A Nuclear Future

Nuclear power offers affordable, environmentally benign, secure, and dense energy for the nation. Costs to operate and maintain commercial nuclear power stations have been dropping for almost 20 years as capacity factors have increased and fuel costs have decreased. Emissions from these plants are tightly controlled, and are lower than any other fuel source, with the possible exceptions of solar and hydro. While nuclear power plants are not cheap to build, they are cost-competitive to operate and could become the primary indigenous power source of the 21st century. And the power they generate is available every day, every hour, regardless of whether the sun is shining, the wind is blowing, or the dam has water behind it. In 2007, the 439 nuclear power plants operating worldwide produced 2,658 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, which was about 16 percent of electricity generated globally. 9 Domestically, the 104 operating plants supplied about one-fifth of the U.S. electric demand, with a capacity factor exceeding 90 percent.

Nuclear power is not normally included in a listing of renewable energy sources; however, while some studies estimate today’s uranium fuel stocks only will last through the middle of the 21st century for presently operating plants, 10 they don’t take into account fuels other than uranium ( e.g., plutonium, thorium), innovative programs to reuse existing stocks of used fuel (which still contain some 95-percent of their initial energy), military stockpiles, or breeder reactors (which create more fuel than they use, but were abandoned for political reasons in the 1970s 11).

Commercial nuclear power originated with President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1953. 12 The U.S. nuclear industry appears to be entering a nuclear renaissance, with a renewed interest in building new nuclear power plants in America. Nuclear utilities have cooperated in improving their capacity factors and safety records, and the industry has gone through a significant period of consolidation, allowing for economies of scope and scale that significantly have lowered operating costs to the point where nuclear is easily competitive with other energy sources. Further, with concerns about climate change and vocal support of such