02/21/2012 08:37 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

New Nuclear Construction Will Help Secure U.S. Energy Technology Leadership

Building and Construction Trades Department chief Mark Ayers and Energy Secretary Steven Chu share a sense of optimism rising out of Georgia's red clay.

Ayers, who leads the AFL-CIO"s building trades unions, understands the value of 4,000 to 5,000 construction jobs that will be created by the Vogtle nuclear energy project -- the largest construction project ever in Georgia. The two reactors, awarded federal construction permits last week, represent "a strong and unmistakable signal that nuclear energy will now assume an important role in a low-carbon energy future."

Chu, at the Vogtle site on Wednesday, reviewed for hundreds of workers the Obama administration's commitment to nuclear energy, and announced an investment of $10 million in advanced nuclear technologies research. Nuclear energy, Chu said, will have growing influence globally as nations confront a changing climate and increasing energy demand.

Southern Company already has invested more than $1.5 billion in two advanced reactors that will power about 1.5 million homes. Two existing reactors at Vogtle already serve 600,000 customers in the fast-growing Southeast market.

The region is the most hospitable to nuclear energy, with about one-third of America's 104 reactors in seven Southeastern states. The Southern States Energy Board -- a band of government leaders from 14 southern states -- recognizes the economic and environmental benefits of safely operated reactors: "Without nuclear energy, carbon dioxide emissions would have been 28 percent greater... and an additional 700 million tons of carbon dioxide would have been emitted each year."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is expected to vote in the coming weeks on the construction permits for two more reactors in South Carolina. In addition, the Tennessee Valley Authority is completing its Watts Bar 2 reactor in Tennessee, a facility where construction started many years ago but was never completed.

New reactors are becoming a reality in the face of low-priced natural gas for several reasons. Nuclear energy facilities are large, 24/7 power producers that operate at industry-leading levels of reliability. Around the clock production, coupled with low uranium fuel prices, results in low production costs for residential and industrial customers alike. That's an important economic driver for companies that are migrating to the Southeast, where regulated electricity markets provide stability and predictability in energy costs.

Add to that package of benefits the fact that nuclear energy facilities emit no greenhouse gases in the production of electricity and the prospect for powering electric vehicles, and one can understand the appeal to long-term energy planners.

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, wrote last week that an expansion of nuclear power "shows that the United States is serious about meeting growing energy demand without pumping more carbon into the atmosphere. At a time when political support for some kind of carbon cap or tax has seemingly collapsed, that's an important sign that Americans aren't giving up on protecting the Earth's climate."

Given our troubled economy, public concern over climate change has taken a back seat to more pressing policy issues. Americans are more concerned about the safety and price of electricity options, but climate and environmental issues remain strong drivers. That's why 82 percent of Americans believe that U.S. companies should learn and apply the lessons from the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan, but continue to develop new reactors to supply electricity here at home, according to a September 2011 survey by Bisconti Research Inc.

Nuclear energy, like all energy sources, has hurdles it must clear. The capital investment required for new reactors makes it difficult to build new projects in competitive electricity markets with today's gas prices. The industry also has suffered from decades of intractable federal policy on used fuel management. The Energy Department, which is 15 years in arrears of meeting contractual obligations to take used uranium fuel rods from commercial reactors, now will make recommendations to Congress to revamp the program. This is a political problem however, not a technical challenge.

The Vogtle project, featuring U.S. reactor innovation, is a significant signal of American leadership in nuclear energy technology, which the Commerce Department forecasts to be a $740 billion global market over the next decade. It would be shortsighted for our nation to cede this leadership, and tens of thousands of jobs, to other nations by not building on this momentum.