Obama’s Nuclear Option

While I rarely agree with President Obama, I feel compelled to give him credit when credit is due.  His announcement in the State of the Union address to support “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants” and his later support for tripling the amount of federal loan guarantees in early February may mark a turning point in not just solving our future energy needs but also holds the promise of building in economic security for the future.  This may be the best decision that this President has made since taking office and has the potential to be seen by future generations as a turning point in our history. 

While pundits on the left and right may each try to blame the current economic fiasco on the past political policies of each; the fact is that our economic woes have more to do with energy than almost anything else.  Energy is the life giving blood of our economy and has been since the beginning of the industrial revolution.  As the cost of energy increases, so does the production cost of almost every product or service.  This ultimately leads to inflation and cut-backs in the workforce.

Since the U.S. has become ever more dependent on foreign oil we have been subject to major price shifts when the prices of crude oil and its refined fuels spikes dramatically.  Following each and every one of these spikes the U.S. economy slumps into recession.  The first followed the OPEC embargo of 1973-74, the second followed the price shocks in the late 70s and early 80s which coincided with the Iraq-Iran war, the third took place in 1991 following the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.  Even with our most recent recession, prices gradually ramped up to an inflated peak in September 2008; just before the entire economy went into a full nose dive.   While these energy recessions are generally short lived, they do still cause considerable hardship and have the tendency to push the government ever deeper into debt as it scrambles in search of ways to artificially stilulate the economy. 

 Fortunately, current technology has reached the point that a serious investment in nuclear power could lead to forever breaking our dependence on foreign oil.  Not only are electric vehicles finally preparing to hit the market, but natural gas is already a viable fuel for modern vehicles.  The roll that nuclear power would play in this conversion is to take away our reliance on natural gas for electricity production and as a heating source so that the resource could be distributed for use in vehicles without causing a major spike in its price. 

 Also, the heart of the economy, industry, would greatly benefit by cheap, clean power.  To see the effect that cheap energy can have on industry we only have to look back to the late 1800s when one of the first industrial sized power stations was installed on the Niagara River.  For the first time, energy was clean and plentiful.  This one power station attracted a huge amount of industry and is historically responsible for the rapid growth of nearby Buffalo N.Y.  By converting our entire power infrastructure to nuclear power which is far cheaper than even coal per Megawatt to produce, we will be giving a huge economic advantage to American industry.  In fact, with plentiful cheap energy we will also likely see many companies who have moved operations over seas in search of cheap labor, returning to reap the benefits of cheap energy.

 Imagine for a moment that the U.S. were to commit it’s self to converting 100% of our current electricity production to nuclear power.  To provide the 3.3 Terawatts (3.3 trillion Watts) that we currently consume we would need to increase the number of nuclear plants in this country from 100 to 500.  (This estimate in based on the production capacities of current, inefficient reactors.)  If we use Obama’s 4 billion in loan guarantees per plant as a guideline, the total cost in guarantees for the nation to convert our entire electrical production over to nuclear energy would be around 1.6 Trillion dollars.  This is a huge amount of money to be certain, but it is a drop in the bucket when we consider that under Obama’s current spending policy we are set to accumulate $17.2 Trillion in debt by 2019 without any clear economic benefit to the country; just a much bigger government that will have to be supported by future generations.

 We also have to remember that these are merely loan guarantees designed to protect investors from the huge losses they may incur as environmentalist fight these projects at every turn.  These guarantees also help protect investors for the long haul.  Because it can take many years to construct one nuclear facility, investors need to know that the political tides are not going to shift before the plant can make a profit.  It has happened before with the Shoreham plant on Long Island where investors put up the money to build a nuclear plant only to have political tides shift and the plant was never allowed to go online.  Also, because there is already a surplus of electricity in the country from plentiful coal, investors need to know that the nation is truly committed to clean energy first and foremost and willing to wean its dependence on dirty coal.

 Having the government responsible for any losses that it may cause through political manipulation of a market has little difference than forcing the government to pay fair value when acquiring land through eminent domain.  Investing some of our “re-investment in America” money on a project that is sure to reap both economic and environmental benefits for the current and distant future is pure common sense.

 Imagine living in a world where you are no longer being told to turn your lights off, or a world where clean water can be easily produced from the world’s oceans.  A world where smog no longer chokes our cities and talk about man-made global warming is only a political footnote in our history.  

 I understand that this is only two new plants that have been approved and that two is only a fraction of the possible 400 needed to secure our energy future.  Still, this is a start and will likely serve as a test case for future plants.  The environmental movement has been so effective in their tactics that they have essentially halted the regular production of new nuclear power plants over the last 30 years; even as nuclear technology has not only become more efficient but safer and cleaner.  Even the nuclear waste from a reactor can now be reused until the radioactive half life is reduced from over 1000 years to a mere 25 years, making the need for deep storage facilities like the one at Yucca mountain obsolete.  Also, to be honest, I tend to agree with Democrats who claim that it is safer to keep spent fuel onsite than move it around the country by rail.

 When Obama first announced this new initiative both Republicans and Democrats instantly chose to attack him on this issue.  While it may serve a short term political strategy for Republicans to oppose Obama at every turn, they are failing to recognize that this has long been an issue that conservatives have supported.  In my mind, this is just another example of how the Republican Party has lost touch with its base conservative principals.  So what if Obama cancelled the Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility?  Storage of the spent fuel has become far less crucial with modern plants as the spent fuel is far safer and less radioactive than that produced by 70’s era plants. 

 If we truly want to stabilize our economic system and protect the economy from erratic mood swings, we absolutely need to make a major investment in improving our power supply.  As politicians continue to blame each other for every economic down turn, they always seem to fail to recognize the cause and effect pattern that energy spikes have on the economy.  It’s finally time for conservatives to seriously work with Obama on something.  It’s time for conservatives to grasp this moment in history and make an all out push for wide spread nuclear development.  Obama cannot in one moment say that modern nuclear power is clean and safe and needs to be a part of the solution, then refuse initiatives to do what we should have been doing for the last 30 years, building more nuclear plants.