It has been suggested recently that, in light of the tragic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, America needs to plan for a massive catastrophe at one of the country's 104 working nuclear reactors.
The concern for safety is critical, but the good news is that preventive safety work is already being done every day at our nation's reactors. In fact, the United States nuclear energy industry has accumulated an outstanding safety record since the days of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Worker safety in nuclear plants stands above any other American industrial sector, as measured by lost-time accidents. The nuclear power industry has devoted significant resources to continuously improving the safety and reliability of our nuclear power facilities against all manner of potential risks and threats with the result that, for more than 30 years, nuclear plants have delivered about 20 percent of America's electrical power safely and securely, without major incident.
Every nuclear power plant is designed, constructed and managed to prevent radioactive releases, even in the event of natural disasters, operational accidents or terrorist attacks. Since September 2001, the nuclear industry has spent in excess of $2 billion on enhancements to prevent physical or cyber breaches. In fact, analyses conducted by the independent Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) concluded that the structures that surround U.S. nuclear power plants would protect against a release of radiation if struck by a Boeing 767 jetliner. Steel-reinforced concrete containment structures protect reactors and redundant safety and reactor shutdown systems have been designed to withstand the impact of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.
Apart from its own self-initiated safety efforts through the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the industry operates under the watchful eye of a strong regulatory authority, and with significant input from state and local officials. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission holds nuclear reactor operators to the highest safety and security standards of any American industry. Fuel, once used, will continue to be safely stored at reactor sites -- as has been the case for decades -- until a long-term repository is identified. Furthermore, federal law requires that energy companies develop and exercise sophisticated emergency response plans to protect public health and safety. A comparison of safety protocols governing the nuclear energy industry and other industries provides a stark comparison: Nuclear energy meets a higher standard for safety than any other American industry.
Of course, that does not mean the work is complete. Virtually every form of energy production -- coal mining and oil drilling come to mind -- involves significant safety risks. But not producing domestic energy represents another risk, in the form of greater dependence on foreign oil and other energy sources.
With our electricity demand poised to rise 23 percent by 2030, we are going to need to expand our portfolio of energy sources, not limit them. What the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has provided us is an opportunity to weigh the risks of each energy source as we seek to meet that growing demand.
Americans understand this, which is why nuclear energy has garnered such a broad-based consensus of support. The latest Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans -- an all-time high -- favor the use of nuclear energy to produce electricity. President Barack Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu have made expanding nuclear energy a linchpin of their strategy to build a clean energy economy and to create jobs. The editorial pages of both The Washington Post and The New York Times have supported the industry's expansion, most recently in February when both papers lauded the Obama administration's decision to restart the nuclear power industry with its first industry loan guarantee to build two new reactors in Georgia.
This broad-based coalition of supporters has been drawn to nuclear energy because no other full-time electricity source offers the same kind of impact in addressing America's environmental and economic challenges. Nuclear plants produce virtually no carbon dioxide or other harmful emissions; U.S. reactors generated more than 70 percent of the country's emissions-free electricity last year. If the nation's goal is to curb its emissions in the future, then nuclear energy, the only clean base-load power, is uniquely positioned to contribute.
At a time when the country's jobless rate is hovering around a 27-year high, nuclear plant construction projections can put thousands of people back to work. In Waynesboro, Georgia, 700 workers have already been tasked with preparing the site for the two new reactors. This, the state's largest construction project, will ultimately employ up to 3,500 people. Over the past three years, in a period of economic constriction, the nuclear industry has created more than 15,000 new jobs nationally in anticipation of the industry's expansion.
While we must always be looking for new ways to improve safety, it is important to remember that: nuclear energy has a proven safety record, it is subjected to stringent regulatory oversight, and it is domestically produced and managed. As we look toward meeting our increasing energy needs, investment in nuclear energy, along with conservation and other clean energy sources, should be a priority.
Christie Whitman currently co-chairs the nuclear industry funded Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy), a national grassroots coalition that promotes the economic and environmental benefits of nuclear energy as part of a clean energy portfolio.