I’ve long thought the primary obstacle to the great expansion of nuclear power’s contribution to America’s energy needs is excessive regulation imposing safety standards that go far beyond what’s necessary and thus pushing costs prohibitively high. I still think so, and one of the challenges Republicans in Congress should take on is revising bringing those rules into conformity with the reality: that nuclear energy generation as practiced in the United States, in both military and civilian spheres, is safer both theoretically and historically than both fossil fuel and renewables like wind, solar, and biofuels.
What I hadn’t thought through much before now was the importance of continuing, modernizing, and even enlarging our nuclear energy sector for reasons of national security.
The Hoover Institution’s Jeremy Carl discusses that in today’s National Review. Here’s the core (pardon the pun) of his case:
Without a course correction we will see the future of nuclear power determined by China and Russia, who continue to move aggressively in this arena. China will complete five new nuclear power plants in this year alone.
The dangers of this approach should be obvious: While nuclear power plants are in many ways quite distinct technologically from nuclear weapons, the capabilities used in domestic enrichment for civilian nuclear power plants can also be used to create nuclear weapons. This fact has been at the core of much of our conflict with Iran and North Korea over their “civilian” nuclear programs.
The U.S. has traditionally used its leadership in the supply of nuclear technologies to make it very difficult for nuclear-power-plant operators to proliferate the technology. Do you think the Chinese and Russians are likely to share our interests in this? Look to Pyongyang and Pakistan to find out.
… the reactors that power our nuclear navy — over 140 ships ranging from submarines to aircraft carriers — run off technology virtually identical to that powering our civilian reactors. In fact, domestic nuclear power originally grew from these naval programs. Losing the technology and operating experience through the atrophy of our domestic nuclear-power sector would mean a profound loss of capability in our military…. the expertise needed to build passively safe reactors — reactors that by their very design would make a serious nuclear accident almost impossible — will not be cultivated if our next generation of power plants is not developed.
… more than any other form of electricity generation, nuclear has substantial strategic dimensions. Before we decide whether the U.S. wants to have nuclear power in its future, it is essential that our policymakers understand everything that is at stake. And even if we exit the civilian nuclear business, the rest of the world is not likely to follow suit. The nuclear genie is out of the bottle for good. The only question is whether we want the genie to obey our commands — or those of Beijing and Moscow.
Carl and co-author David Fedor have a new book out, Keeping the Lights on at America’s Nuclear Power Plants, that looks promising. People who care about providing abundant, affordable, reliable electricity to the American people for generations to come might want to read it.
Featured image of steam coming out of a nuclear power plant’s cooling towers courtesy of Mark Goebel/Flickr CC.