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    Tuesday, July 16, 2024

    Biden recognizes nuclear role in clean-energy future

    U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm signaled in her recent visit to eastern Connecticut that nuclear power will have an important role to play in moving the nation away from fossil fuel power generation and toward a more climate-friendly future. It is the right approach.

    During her May 20 visit, Granholm made it a point to not only visit State Pier in New London, which is undergoing a major overhaul to support development of wind-power fields off the Atlantic coast, but also the Millstone Power Station and its nuclear reactors in Waterford.

    The Biden administration’s actions are not simply symbolic. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden signed in November will provide $6 billion in subsidies to keep existing nuclear plants safely operating longer and allocated $2.5 billion for research and development of new nuclear technologies.

    Along with expanding such renewable energy technologies as wind power, solar, and hydropower, nuclear electric generation is necessary to achieve ambitious goals aimed at greatly diminishing greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time providing the power production needed for economic growth.

    Nuclear has the added advantage of consistency. Reactors keep humming when there is no wind, or the sun is behind the clouds, or drought reduces waterflow.

    It makes sense to utilize existing nuclear power facilities, such as Millstone, in moving forward. Careful, objective evaluation can determine how far, and at what cost, operation of the existing two reactors can extend into the future. And the state and region should be open to the possibility that the Millstone site could host next generation, small modular reactors.

    SMRs would not the carry the same risk of meltdown. Research into development of these plants includes possible use of new fissile materials (thorium, for example) that are more plentiful and create less long-term toxic waste. Also being explored is reuse of existing nuclear waste as a fuel source. Initial investment in this new technology would be significant, but once a design is arrived at and can be reproduced, construction costs will drop.

    A necessary prelude to moving to next-generation nuclear power is safely dealing with existing nuclear waste, which remains dangerously radioactive for thousands of years.

    The lack of a solution is based in politics, not technology. Yucca Mountain in Nevada, after $9 billion of investment, was near ready to accept the nation’s nuclear waste for safe storage. But the late Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, using his powerful perch as Senate leader, persuaded President Obama to abandon the plan. Attention has since turned to finding willing hosts to take the waste, in return for federal funds, or exploring the reuse of the material.

    With no alternatives available, Millstone operator Dominion Energy has begun moving nuclear waste into special containment casks for long-term storage on site. This is not an acceptable solution, and no future nuclear development should be allowed on the site until that waste is removed.

    Critics of utilizing nuclear power point to the greenhouse emissions used in the development and construction of the plants, primarily for the steel and concrete. But the same criticism holds true to varying degrees for development of wind, solar and hydropower. The goal must be to create enough clean power generation to build future climate-friendly infrastructure without expending fossil fuel, or at least far less of it.

    After the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, Germany speeded up its plan to eliminate its nuclear-power generation. This has proved a case study in how knee-jerk reactions can make for bad public policy. Because of this decision, Germany has produced far larger greenhouse gas emissions. And it made that nation more dependent on fossil fuels imported from Russia. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the resulting foreign-policy dilemma has become painfully evident.

    It took a magnitude earthquake and tidal wave unprecedented in Japan’s history to create the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, but even then, safety systems greatly mitigated the fallout. The greatest nuclear disaster, the Chernobyl fire in the Soviet Union in 1986, was the result of reckless design — no containment structure — and incredibly bad operating decisions.

    The United States cannot let such ghosts from the past deter it from using all the tools necessary, including nuclear power generation, to combat climate change and secure a safer future for the planet.

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