Nuclear Lemonade

Obama is right to encourage the use of nuclear energy. Let’s hope he’s actually serious about it—and not just trying to score political points with union workers.

President Barack Obama's announcement that his administration would provide $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build two nuclear reactors at an existing plant in Georgia is both strategically necessary and politically pragmatic. That said, it wasn't exactly his idea (though then-Senator Obama did vote for the Energy Policy Act of 2005). The president must do more to lay the foundation for a new generation of nuclear reactors in America.

Mr. Obama's announcement-made during a visit to a local office of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers-was a clear effort to make political lemonade, seeking credit with union workers for a step likely to anger many liberals and environmentalists. As has been widely reported since the president's nod to nuclear power during his State of the Union Address last month, it is also an olive branch to Republicans and particularly to his former rival Senator John McCain, who called for the construction of forty-five new reactors by 2030 during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Senator McCain was right to set that ambitious but achievable target. For about the last two decades, nuclear power has provided about 20 percent of America's electricity. The nuclear industry has been able to maintain this share as U.S. electricity consumption has increased by upgrading existing plants and using a larger proportion of their generating capacity-but that approach won't work much longer. In the coming decades, many new reactors will be necessary.

Why does the nuclear-power share of our energy mix matter? One reason is energy security. That in itself motivated France to build a nuclear industry sufficient to produce around 80 percent of its electricity after the oil shock of the early 1970s. The United States is extremely unlikely to adopt France's energy mix, which among other things would require vast capital investments, but there is no question that America benefits from having a diverse portfolio of energy sources that includes nuclear power.

Another reason is climate change. Nuclear power produces very limited greenhouse-gas emissions in comparison with fossil fuels and is much more suited to base load generation-constant, round-the-clock power for the relatively fixed component of the country's electricity demand-than renewable sources like solar or wind. The numbers in the U.S. power sector make it an unavoidable truth that no American administration can address climate change in a serious way without building a lot of new nuclear power plants.

Nuclear power's problems and limitations are real, and waste management and proliferation are the most troubling, especially on a global basis. A narrower but major challenge for the United States is that our long nuclear hiatus has weakened American capacity to design and build nuclear power plants to such an extent that maintaining nuclear power's role will not be easy. As one former industry insider explained to me, few if any currently serving American utility executives have overseen the design and construction of a new reactor. And investors are deeply anxious about pouring billions of dollars into a highly regulated and highly politicized industry-part of the reason that the Obama administration's loan guarantees are needed. Expanding the U.S. nuclear industry will not be easy.

Hopefully, the administration's loan guarantees will work and Southern Company's two new reactors will reassure skittish executives and investors that it is indeed possible to build nuclear plants in the United States. If it does-and that day is still far off-the Obama administration will deserve a measure of credit for making it happen. But if the administration does no more, pursuing nuclear power as a matter of political convenience rather than national interest, the American nuclear industry will develop too slowly to meet our needs. And today's lemonade won't have left much behind beyond sour expressions.


Paul J. Saunders is Executive Director of The Nixon Center and Associate Publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.