The nuclear solution

November 19, 2006|By Olivia Albrecht

Today, the United States imports oil at a rate of $400,000 a minute. It is estimated that by 2030, U.S. energy demands will increase by nearly two-thirds, and that by 2050, global energy demand will more than double. Americans must realize the necessity of finding a reliable energy supply in order to sustain economic growth and prosperity in the 21st century and to reduce the security, economic and political risks of our dependence on foreign oil.

The imperative is clear: We must develop a diverse energy portfolio, encourage technological advancements and make energy policy a priority on the foreign and domestic fronts. The ever-apparent synergy among geopolitics, diplomacy, environmental concerns, economic fears and domestic policy dictates that Americans must periodically reassess our energy portfolio and seek to diversify our sources - and generate a comprehensive approach to the transnational issues surrounding energy policy.

Nuclear energy is the most promising source of power, and it is making a comeback. In recent months, Washington has been buzzing with talk about this subject.

However, skeptics question how nuclear energy could wean us off oil, given that transportation, not electricity generation, is the primary guzzler of oil.

It is true that oil contributes only 2 percent of U.S. electricity, and nuclear energy generates thousands of megawatts of electricity. Yet analysts agree that as the price at the pump continues to grow, more global consumers will turn away from gas-fueled vehicles and toward alternative-power items to avoid the cost of oil.

Imagine if all car owners in the United State traded in their oil engines for electric cars: The drastic surge in electricity consumption could not be sustained by our current electric-output capability. Nuclear energy is ready to handle the demands created by increased electricity consumption as we free ourselves from oil dependence.

There has been quiet progress on this front. In the last year, the Energy Policy Act was passed, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership was introduced, additional reactor designs were certified and numerous utilities began the licensing process to build new reactors. But serious nuclear ambitions have not been sufficiently acted upon. Regrettably, each passing year without substantial changes in U.S. nuclear energy pursuits means America falls further behind in this burgeoning sector.

Despite the fact that the United States operates 103 of the world's 443 reactors, our nation has not ordered a commercial power reactor for decades. The industrial infrastructure that supported America's unsurpassed nuclear industry faded with the end of the Cold War, just as demand for new U.S. nuclear power plants diminished. In contrast, those nations that continued to develop their nuclear industry over the past three decades are positioned to lead the emerging global nuclear renaissance.

Few realize that the United States must build new reactors in order to sustain the nuclear contribution of 20 percent to the nation's electricity total - let alone amping up that amount, as many comprehensive energy plans suggest must occur. The United States will have to build 75 to 110 nuclear power reactors of equivalent power to current reactors over the next 25 years just to sustain nuclear power's current level of contribution. Achieving the status quo would require bringing three new reactors on line by 2012, with six or seven being brought on line in most years between then and 2030. Expanding the industry to contribute 30 percent of the nation's electricity would require approximately 200 new reactors over the next 25 years.

Even if there were sufficient political will to dictate a grand return to nuclear energy, the American industrial base could not meet the demand. This means that Americans would shift energy dependence from foreign oil fields to foreign nuclear manufacturing facilities.

The global economic facts are unpleasantly basic: Oil supplies are tight, prices are high, and energy demands are increasing - primarily because of the exploding consumption rates in places such as India and China. Today, the haves and have-nots of the world are being defined in terms of oil supply. The countries with oil have more influence and more money, while the countries needing oil have less leverage and less money. And those countries that need oil but can't afford to buy it are becoming even poorer and are further removed from the center stage of world affairs.

Witness the recent move by three members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries - Venezuela, Nigeria and Kuwait - to cut oil production to keep prices above $60 per barrel, increasing uncertainty in the volatile oil market and sustaining the pressure that high oil prices place on the global economy. OPEC's message: As long as the world depends on its oil, we are at its mercy.

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