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Raymond J. Learsy

Raymond J. Learsy

Posted: December 13, 2009 09:35 AM

Climate Change and Nuclear Energy: America's Missed Opportunity

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With 10 percent unemployment and a government determined to stimulate economic growth and put people back to work, what better use for our stimulus programs than building a series of nuclear facilities around the country?

Billions from the stimulus pool are already being designated to accelerate the clean up of nuclear sites at Hanford, Washington; Oak Ridge, Tennesee; and the Savannah River site in South Carolina. At the Savannah site alone, it has created some 1,400 new jobs, drawing workers from all over the country.

Would it not make sense to go one step further and expand an energy infrastructure that is clean, efficient and not foreign supply dependent? We hear much about the job-creating possibilities of new clean energy technologies. They should go forward at full speed. But in nuclear power, we have a preeminent technology being sought out by others and vast knowledge in an energy field that is at the top of the agenda for many nations in a world needing efficient and clean energy solutions. And here we are, doing close to nothing in bringing about a nuclear renaissance to our own communities even when it could be at the core of dealing with climate change and a key stimulus to our labor market.

The paucity of our efforts and the lack of national vision on this issue was underlined by Indian Prime Minister Singh's visit to Washington two weeks ago. His visit re-focused attention on India's and America's efforts to tie up the details and of the highly important and quintessentially symbolic bi-national nuclear cooperation agreement. India is planning to build an additional seven nuclear power plants by 2020 and access to American nuclear technology is key to India's plans. American and Indian negotiators are working diligently on the energy cooperative agreement approved by the legislatures of both countries last year.

There are still details to be worked out, including:

  • Assurances that low enriched uranium sold by the U.S. companies for use in Indian reactors does not end up reprocessed as weapons grade fuel.

  • Guarantees from Nuclear armed India that the fuel would not be used for military purposes.

  • Assurances that India, not a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will not pass on its nuclear know-how.

  • Issues of liability protection.

The United States and India cooperating to help India broaden its commitment to nuclear energy exposes a major failure of American national policy. Here is India, an ancient civilization transformed into a vibrant emerging economy committed to expanding its nuclear power capability, seeking help from its somnolent sister democracy. A sister democracy that has not had the determination nor volition to build a new nuclear facility since the late Seventies -- a hiatus the duration of a generation. This, while India plans seven new nuclear plants by 2020, China has 20 under construction and will have built 32 new plants by 2020 and plans to have 300 more by 2050. France, whose electric grid is already serviced 80 percent by nuclear power, is ratcheting up to 100 percent in the next few years.

Our stimulus monies could not be better focused than building a series of nuclear power plants around the country. In France, many towns and cities compete to have facilities located in or near their communities because of the employment they bring and the economic infrastructure they encourage. How many of our towns and cities would be so inclined? It would be interesting to find out.

Yes, of course there are myriad problems attendant to nuclear energy expansion, but they can be dealt with as other nations have done (please see "Nuclear Waste: 'Not In My Backyard!' Then Whose?").

A first and important step would be to reverse President Carter's almost unilateral "indefinite deferral" of our plans to reprocess and recycle used nuclear fuel because of concerns that reprocessing could contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. President Carter expected other nations to follow his lead, but they did not, recognizing Carter's policy offered no viable path to prevent proliferation. Mr. David Rossin, who was assistant secretary for nuclear energy in the U.S. Department of Energy from 1986 to 1987 and president of the American Nuclear Society from 1991 to 1992, points out, "French and British experts and diplomats have strong memories about the way the U.S. undermined their nuclear fuel cycle in the first 100 days of his [President Carter's] administration, without national public debate nor international counsel." In doing so, he severely hampered the nation's ability to deal with the nuclear fuel cycle. Since then France, for one, has significantly increased the capacity of its reprocessing facilities. At the very least, it is time to review in depth the Department of Energy's initiative to promote new reactor technology using "proliferation resistant" reprocessed fuel.

At this moment -- with emissaries from all over the world gathering in Copenhagen, and on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency's dire ruling that greenhouse gases posed a danger to human health and the environment, and given the ominous issues of energy, both strategic and environmental, given the economic demands of a world economy that is becoming ever more fully integrated -- this is a failing of national dimensions. It is a reflection of failed or incompetent leadership, or worse, a government no longer able to function effectively in a new world where other national entities work for the greater good of their citizens rather than the parochial interests of the well connected few.

Nuclear energy is essential to a green future and our economic competitiveness. We cannot afford to have another generation go by without engaging it fully and putting it at the forefront of our national energy policy.