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An Energy Agenda For A Newly Energized Congress (Part VI): The Importance of Nuclear Energy to the Nation's Future- Lafayette, We Need You Again!

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Our consumption of oil, given the threats it poses to our national security, its impact on our economy and most importantly on our environment, evidences one of the sad shortcomings of our governance and public discourse. Not a single nuclear energy plant has been built in this country since the 1970's.

There are valid reasons for this hiatus. The experience of Three Mile Island, the lingering memory of the Chernobyl disaster, the costs of construction and the arduous licensing process, the conundrum of nuclear waste disposal (see "Nuclear Waste: Not in My Backyard, Then Whose", 07.07.06), nuclear proliferation issues, and on.

And yet, for all of its negatives, others have found nuclear energy to be a viable alternative to their growing dependence on fossil fuels. It is being viewed by many nations as the cleanest, cheapest solution to the world's energy needs. Nuclear energy has no polluting emissions, providing clean energy to our increasingly vulnerable and deteriorating environment, with reliable generating capacity to fuel the world's growing economies. In due course it will become a major source of electrical power for plug-in hybrids which together with flexible fuel vehicles will inevitably go a long way toward replacing gas guzzling automobiles. In so doing nuclear energy will play a major role in reducing the role of oil which today powers 98% of the world's cars, trucks and planes.

Consider the following. Countries once viewed as developing nations are emerging as sophisticated economies surpassing us in growth by factors of three and four and amassing significant current account balances as was reported in NYTimes (Floyd Norris, Dec. 30.2006) . Earlier this month two important events were announced.

In Beijing, in the presence of our Secretary of Energy, Sam Bodman, U.S. based Westinghouse Electric Co. signed a multibillion dollar agreement to supply four nuclear power plants to China. It will be a first major step in China's ambition to be at the forefront of a global trend toward increased use of nuclear power.

After the signing Secretary Bodman was quoted "It is my hope that this very serious commitment by the Chinese Government will help persuade the nuclear power industry in the U.S. that now is the time to commit to building new nuclear power plants in our country to expand our own sources of clean emissions-free electric power and further diversify our energy portfolio". In sharp contrast to our timidity, China plans to build some 30 new nuclear plants by 2020 raising its installed capacity to 40 gigawatts, just about enough to power Spain according to Reuters.

Only a few days later (on Dec. 18th) President Bush signed a treaty that will allow India to purchase US nuclear reactors and fuel for the first time in 30 years. The deal reverses a US policy that precluded nuclear cooperation with India because it had developed nuclear weapons and had never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under the agreement India will allow inspection of its civilian nuclear facilities.

Before the treaty becomes operative three additional approvals are needed- from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group and a second time by the US Congress- but the intent and the direction is clear.

As the world's largest democracy, India's nuclear ambitions rival that of China. India's demand for electricity is expected to double as early as 2015, and in the face of this staggering growth it is India's goal to generate 25% of its electricity needs by 2050 through nuclear energy. India projects that in reaching this goal its annual abatement of Green House Gas pollution will be equal to the total yearly carbon emissions produced by the economy of the Netherlands

So here we have two of the fastest growing economies in the world whose gross national product will soon begin to rival ours, linking their future to the development of nuclear power generation for economic, energy security, and environmental reasons. And our capabilities are helping them make that possible. It is high time we began to help ourselves! The issue of nuclear energy needs be revisited with heightened seriousness in public discourse and Congressional focus. And if Congress and our government cannot set us on a course to deal with this issue in a constructive and result oriented way, perhaps we should ask the French for help. After all 78% of their power grid is supplied by nuclear generated electricity as opposed to little over 20% in the United States. Lafayette, we need you again!