America’s long nuclear energy drought is officially over. For the first time in 33 years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has approved a construction and operating license for a new nuclear reactor in the United States – actually two of them to expand Southern Company’s Plant Vogtle generating facility in Georgia.
This is good news for U.S. electricity consumers, companies, and workers. Since 1979, the last time NRC approved a construction permit, U.S. electricity use has risen more than 80 percent. An expansion of nuclear power – which has provided about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity for decades – shows that the United States is serious about meeting growing energy demand without pumping more carbon into the atmosphere. At a time when political support for some kind of carbon cap or tax has seemingly collapsed, that’s an important sign that Americans aren’t giving up on protecting the Earth’s climate.
The two reactors will generate thousands of badly needed construction and operating jobs. Their larger significance, however, may lie in symbolizing America’s commitment to rebuilding its productive base. In effect, the NRC’s action puts America back in the nuclear energy business, and not a moment too soon. Around the world, some 160 new nuclear reactors have either been ordered or are planned to be operational by 2030, according to the World Nuclear Organization. We need to rebuild our nuclear industrial infrastructure to be able to compete in the fast-growing global market for nuclear energy.
The NRC’s decision comes on the heels of another important development which bodes well for America’s “nuclear renaissance.” Last month, President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future (BRC) issued its final report. It offers a new strategy for breaking the impasse on nuclear waste disposal, which has tied politicians in knots over the proposed Yucca Mountain facility for decades. Headed by Democrat Lee Hamilton and Republican Brent Scowcroft, the BRC calls for a resumption of the search for a second geological storage site, which it says we will need regardless of Yucca’s fate.
Nuclear energy still faces significant hurdles, especially the enormous upfront costs of siting and building a generating plant. But if the NRC can follow today’s action with a commitment to speeding up the approval process, some of those costs could be mitigated. In any case, it’s critical for the United States to recapture its technological leadership in energy, which includes the civilian nuclear power industry that was first invented here.
Photo Credit: Blatant World