President Obama's announcement that the federal government would guarantee loans for two advanced-design nuclear plants in Georgia was good news.
The commitment jump-starts the U.S. nuclear energy industry at a time when we have begun to understand that nuclear energy has a substantial role to play in combating climate change and supplying power. More important for the near term, the administration is putting nuclear energy at the center of its push to revitalize the economy.
In his State of the Union address, Obama called for "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants" to create more "clean-energy jobs." He has called for a tripling of federal loan guarantees for reactors. And in announcing the loan guarantee for the Georgia plants, the president urged skeptical Americans to revisit their views on nuclear energy and consider the importance of this proven-safe technology to enhance energy security and climate protection.
"On an issue that affects our economy, our security and the future of the planet, we can't keep on being mired in the same old stale debates between the left and the right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs," Obama said.
That statement struck a personal chord with me. When I helped found Greenpeace in the 1970s, I was convinced that the risks from harnessing nuclear energy outweighed the benefits. More than 30 years later, Greenpeace still embraces that view, but my views have changed, in part because many of the risks that concerned me have been addressed.
Similarly, the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post agreed with the president that nuclear energy should be part of America's energy portfolio as the country moves toward a less carbon-intensive energy base.
This timely political and public turnabout is rooted in a decades-long record of safety. Currently, nuclear power plants supply about one-fifth of the nation's energy. And no member of the public has ever been injured by a nuclear power plant in the United States, nor has any nuclear worker died of a radiation-related incident.
Thanks to similarly strong security requirements guarding this critical U.S. infrastructure, nuclear power plants are well protected against potential security threats.
The twin challenges of climate change and rising electricity demand have pressed the United States and many other countries to seek out large-scale, low-carbon electricity sources. Nuclear energy is a central part of this global push because it has few equals when it comes to producing virtually emissions-free electricity at scale. Nuclear reactors produce more than 70% of the carbon-free electricity in the country. California would have to remove more than half a million passenger cars from its roads to eliminate the amount of carbon dioxide prevented by the state's four nuclear reactors.
As attractive as these environmental gains are, the economic gains for many states and regions are even more important. The two reactors in Georgia will create an estimated 3,500 jobs during construction and 800 permanent jobs when the reactors are up and running.
As many as 21,000 permanent jobs would be created if all of the U.S. nuclear reactors now in the planning stages are built, according to a report by the Clean and Safe Energy (CASEnergy) Coalition, a national alliance that I chair with former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman. CASEnergy is funded by the nuclear industry.
Although some critics have questioned the costs of building nuclear energy facilities, it's important to keep the cost issue in perspective. To match the power produced by one reactor at a cost of $6 billion to $8 billion, you would need a wind farm spanning 200,000 acres and as much as $12 billion in investment capital, plus natural gas-fired plants to back up wind turbines that are idle the majority of the time.
Encouraged by nuclear energy's environmental and economic benefits, more and more Americans favor nuclear energy. In a Congress that is growing more partisan as the midterm election nears, nuclear energy is a uniting factor among Democrats, Republicans and independents. That is why climate-change legislation crafted by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has a significant role for nuclear power.
In California, where a state moratorium on new reactors has been in place since 1976, a majority of residents responding to the most recent California Field Poll on nuclear energy approved of building new reactors. Likewise, a majority of respondents to an ABC News/Washington Post national poll last August supported the construction of more nuclear power plants.
This emerging consensus will be crucial to ensuring that nuclear energy continues to play a vital role in meeting U.S. energy and environmental goals. As Obama said in announcing the first federal loan guarantee for nuclear energy projects, "This is just the beginning."