Despite the need to confront climate change, the United States is perilously close to letting the largest producers of carbon-free electricity fade away. Nearly half of the nation’s aging nuclear plants will reach the end of their approved lifespan by 2040, and fewer than a half-dozen new reactors have been approved in the past 30 years.
Congress must intervene. Lawmakers have an opportunity to re-establish nuclear power as an important component in U.S. energy policy by approving bipartisan bills designed to encourage the research and development of advanced nuclear technology. The measures also would streamline the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review of licenses.
The private sector is already at work on creating small, next-generation reactors. The research, funded in part by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, focuses on increasing affordability and efficiency and on reducing the risk of meltdown by using molten salt and other substances to cool reactors.
Some efforts are modeled on the Navy’s proven nuclear submarine technology. Modular units that generate up to 300 megawatts can be assembled offsite and moved to power plants. As demand increases, new units can be added at a lower cost than larger facilities.
All of these efforts need a boost from the government. Among the most critical elements of the proposed legislation is a plan to construct a test reactor and enhance public-private research partnerships through the Department of Energy’s national laboratories.
Nuclear reactors generate 20 percent of the electricity in the United States and 15 percent in Wisconsin. More important, they account for more than 60 percent of the nation’s — and 70 percent of Wisconsin’s — low-carbon power.
The nation is far too reliant on coal-fired plants whose emissions contribute not just to climate change and mercury contamination but also to heart and lung diseases. Despite the damage, coal plants still generate about 45 percent of the nation’s and 60 percent of Wisconsin’s electricity.
Other energy sources face challenges, too. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel, but its extraction through fracking causes environmental damage. Wind and solar power are promising alternatives and deserve to be a growing part of the nation’s energy portfolio, but neither has reached the scale or economic efficiency needed to reverse climate change.
Yet without significant research and development in the next generation of technology, nuclear power will decline. The Chicago-based Exelon Corp. recently announced plans to shut down two nuclear plants in Illinois next year, citing the failure of state lawmakers to pass a bill that would extend state subsidies for the plants. Three years ago, Wisconsin’s Kewaunee Power Station shut down.
In a bipartisan vote earlier this year, Wisconsin lawmakers lifted a moratorium on construction of nuclear reactors in the state. It was a welcome recognition of the role that nuclear power can play in creating a safe, secure and reliable energy portfolio. Congress can now further the cause nationally by investing in advanced nuclear technology.
— Wisconsin State Journal