Since nuclear power has an impressive record for safety and good economic performance in the United States, and doesn’t face the price volatility that natural gas does, it will be with us for a long time.
Consider safety. These days, people who live near nuclear plants tend to show even greater support for nuclear power than the general public does. According to a national poll, 81 percent of the people who live within a 10-mile radius of a nuclear plant favor the use of nuclear power – 47 percent strongly. Among the public at large, 68 percent favor nuclear power, 29 percent strongly.
EVEN MORE REVEALING, 86 percent of plant neighbors say they have a favorable impression of the nuclear plant closest to where they live and the way it has operated in recent years. Safety is the main reason for this view, inasmuch as 84 percent gave their local plants a high rating for safety.
What seems so revealing about the poll is that it indicates supporters of nuclear power are being upstaged by opponents whose false claims seem to garner much of the attention from Washington policymakers. This is especially clear if we try to understand why the current administration, which professes to be concerned about climate change, did not include carbon-free nuclear power in a directive requiring the federal government to purchase 20 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2020. Anyone who talks about a lack of support for nuclear power simply hasn’t done the math.
The poll, conducted by Bisconti Research, found that of those who live near nuclear plants, 68 percent said that if more electricity-generating capacity is needed, it would be acceptable to add a new reactor at a nearby site.
THE EVIDENCE IS overwhelming that by failing to respond effectively to public support for nuclear – by not even making the need for a balanced mix of sources a top energy priority – the administration is impeding the long-term growth of nuclear power and stunting potential reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions. A forecast by the Energy Information Administration gives it only 3 percent of new capacity for electricity generation through 2040 – the same as for much-criticized coal.
TRUE, CHEAP AND abundant natural gas is partly to blame. EIA forecasts that gas-fired electric power will grow 20 times as fast as nuclear power through 2040. The sluggish economy also is a factor, reducing the need for new power plants in many states. This is bad news for those who want to reduce carbon emissions from our energy sources and have more stable prices for energy-producing fuel. While natural gas is a cleaner-burning source of energy than coal, leakages of natural gas (methane) into the atmosphere contribute to the problem, as methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Leakages occur during extraction, handling and transportation of natural gas. When natural gas is burned, carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas produced.
Consumers will be at the mercy of relatively unstable prices for natural gas, as gas prices can be extremely volatile and represent a large portion of the cost of generating electricity. Nuclear fuel, on the other hand, represents a relatively small percentage of the cost of generating electricity.
WE SHOULD KEEP in mind that nuclear power plants in the United States provide extraordinary economic benefits. Here at home, Georgia’s four reactors provide 28 percent of Georgia’s electricity and South Carolina’s seven reactors generate 51.2 percent of the state’s power. Based on national averages, each reactor employs between 400 and 700 highly-skilled workers, has a payroll of about $40 million and contributes $470 million to the local economy. Additionally, four reactors using advanced technology are under construction in Georgia and South Carolina, moving appreciably nearer reality.
With public support and an attentive government, nuclear power should have a very bright future.
(The writer is executive director for Citizens for Nuclear Technology Awareness in Aiken, S.C.)