Michigan Journal of Public Affairs

More Nuclear Power Now – A Solution To Two Wicked Problems

By Jack Kramer

We have a jobs crisis in America’s heartland. Despite positive indicators for the American economy across the board, dissatisfaction with jobs drove voters to seek candidates promoting bold change in the 2016 Presidential election. In the face of more automation and outsourcing of human labor to technology, we need more well-paying jobs that offer economic security in America’s heartland. It’s a core priority of the Republican party but viable solutions are few and far between.

We also have a climate change crisis. Despite gains in renewable energy and the historic Paris Agreement, signed by 174 nations to take action to mitigate global warming, we’re not doing nearly enough. Polar ice is melting, sea levels are rising, and weather patterns are endangering people across the globe. We need to do more to impede the destructive effects of climate change. It’s a core priority of the Democratic party but there’s no solution in sight.

These are wicked problems, but with momentum building in Washington for a massive infrastructure bill, we have an opportunity to create a bipartisan solution: investment in nuclear power. We should build nuclear power plants in parts of the country that are suffering from economic depression. In particular, we should build them in coal country and nuclear country. Regions that have relied on power plants for jobs are suffering as America shifts from coal and nuclear to cheaper and abundant natural gas. Nuclear power plants are engines of carbon-free electricity that can replace dirty coal. They’re also job creators; a typical plant employs 600 people and power plant jobs pay an average salary of $78,000, typically requiring only a high school degree. No plant has been commissioned in this country since the 1980s, but grave economic and environmental problems call for a major nuclear comeback.

Nuclear isn’t the best solution for jobs. It isn’t the best solution for climate change. But it’s the only solution that can get support from both sides of the aisle. It’s the only proposal that is actually feasible in today’s political climate. I believe this could have an impact reminiscent of the “New Deal” for future Americans.

This proposal will elicit cries of protest from many places. But the essence of compromise is that everyone gets some, but not all, of what they want. Embracing nuclear power will actually benefit all Americans in some way.

Anti-nuclear environmentalists will denounce nuclear as inherently dangerous. Nuclear power developed a stigma because of the disaster at Chernobyl, Ukraine, and more recently the earthquake in the Pacific Ocean that caused a breach at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant. Also, the nuclear industry in the US has failed to find a permanent repository for nuclear waste, always opting to kick the can down the road for another decade. However, nuclear experts assert that what happened in Chernobyl and Fukushima wouldn’t happen in the US because of our strict standards and regulations. We should also remember that nobody has ever died in the United States from nuclear energy. We need to put the risks of nuclear in perspective by comparing them to the more pressing danger of climate change — They’re real, they’re happening now, and they’re massive.

Other environmentalists will ask “why nuclear?” when we could invest in wind, solar, and energy efficiency. I’m pro-renewables. I’m pro-efficiency. I’m also pro-nuclear. The fight against climate change is a centuries-long battle and requires an all-of-the-above solution. Moreover, nuclear is the only carbon-free option available for further power generation that doesn’t require the wind or sun. It’s an around-the-clock, clean, base-load power source. Furthermore, a nuclear plant requires hundreds of workers to maintain, unlike wind and solar which are “set-it-and-forget-it.”

The finance community will say nuclear’s too expensive, especially when compared to natural gas. Part of the problem is that our regulated utility system prevents developers of nuclear plants from recouping costs as they go, and investors aren’t patient enough for long construction periods – these restrictions can be alleviated through federal regulation reform. More importantly, nuclear isn’t getting credit for the unique value it provides, which is carbon-free, reliable, base load electricity. In order to account for those benefits, nuclear should be subsidized as renewables are. Alternatively, we could implement a carbon fee and dividend, a revenue neutral policy that finally forces dirty electricity to pay for the pollution it emits. Moreover, the federal government should support nuclear with grant funding – a generation of advanced nuclear technology is just waiting for government investment.

There are other technical and social challenges to implementing this plan. None of them are insurmountable if this plan is prioritized in a bipartisan way.

Some bipartisan support for nuclear already exists – in December 2016 Lamar Alexander (Republican Senator from Tennessee) and Sheldon Whitehouse (Democratic Senator from Rhode Island) wrote an op-ed titled “To Slow Global Warming, We Need Nuclear Power.” Hillary Clinton sees nuclear power as a tool to fight climate change. Donald Trump views nuclear power through the lens of energy independence and job creation.

Nuclear power plants, if subsidized by the government and built in depressed energy towns, create many winners, no losers. The US has not passed a major bill with bipartisan support in a decade. This can be the one.

We can all benefit in some way from nuclear. What other idea does America have that can say that?

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