The American Legion Magazine | 3.1.09
By Alan W. Dowd

The US nuclear power industry finds itself in the middle of a good news/bad news story. The good news is that it already provides 20 percent of the nation’s electrical power; it’s clean, preventing the release of 700 million additional tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year;[1] it’s gaining support inside the Beltway and beyond; and as a consequence, it could help improve the country’s energy outlook.

The bad news is that the US nuclear power industry is remarkably small for a country with the energy needs and appetite of the United States. The United States actually went decades without even ordering a new nuclear power plant. In fact, there were 112 reactors operating in the US in 1990. Today, there are just over 100.

Hoping to reverse this trend, Congress and the White House have offered incentives, including subsidies and tax breaks, for the construction of nuclear power plants. “To keep pace with our energy needs, experts believe it will be necessary to build an average of three new plants per year starting in 2015,” as President George W. Bush warned before leaving office.[2]

But is that feasible? Thanks to an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, entrepreneurs and national security hawks, the answer increasingly appears to be yes. Just consider what’s happening across the country:

  • When the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Alabama, restarted a reactor in mid-2007, “it became the first US nuclear reactor to come online in the United States in more than a decade,” as Bush noted during his nuclear push.
  • In March 2007, as USA Today reported, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved an Illinois site for a reactor that, if built, would be the first new nuclear plant to be constructed in the United States since 1979.[3]
  • All told, there were four new nuclear power plant applications in 2007 and 15 in 2008. There are already two slated for 2009 and two more for 2010. These plants will be sprinkled across no less than 16 states.[4]

Some view this surge of new applications as evidence of a “nuclear renaissance.” 

“We went more than two decades without a single one applying, and we have now over 30,” as former Sen. Pete Domenici has observed, noting that the pending applications represent projects potentially capable of powering 30 million American households.[5]  Domenici played a key role shepherding pro-nuclear legislation through Congress, before his retirement in January 2009. 

This “nuclear renaissance” is partly a function of efforts to streamline the regulatory process. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, for example, offers special risk insurance to firms that build new nuclear power plants, loan guarantees for clean-energy technologies and long-term tax credits to qualified nuclear power facilities.[6]

Even so, there is no national groundswell of support for nuclear power. CBS News/New York Times polling has found that just 51 percent of respondents approve of building more nuclear power plants, and only 40 percent would approve those plants being built in their community.[7]

This “NIMBY” phenomenon—short for “not in my back yard”—has dogged the nuclear industry for decades. One of its most apparent manifestations has been the battle over transferring and storing spent nuclear fuel from 39 states to Nevada’s YuccaMountain. Selecting YuccaMountain took five years of congressional wrangling. And only now, more than 20 years later, has the Department of Energy submitted an 8,600-page license application to the NRC seeking authorization to construct the storage facility.[8]

Why are Americans so resistant to nuclear power, and what caused the three-decade hiatus from nuclear-plant construction? The answer can be traced to three little letters: TMI.

The failure of the feed-water pumps and consequent partial-core meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island in March 1979 almost nuked the US nuclear industry. After the near-disaster, which caused precisely zero deaths and zero injuries, orders for new US reactors fell from a high of 41 in 1973 to zero. The fact that the two million residents of the area were exposed to one-sixth the amount of radiation absorbed in a typical chest x-ray was irrelevant. The damage had been done—and more was yet to come.[9]

Seven years after TMI, a fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Soviet Ukraine released huge amounts of radiation. More than two dozen workers died within months of the disaster, thyroid cancer spiked among children in the region and experts estimate “4,000 radiation-related cancer deaths may eventually be attributed to the Chernobyl accident,” according to an NRC report.[10]

To be sure, the deaths and long-term effects at Chernobyl are tragic. But it pays to recall that the Soviet government was not known for its public safety record. The disaster at Chernobyl and the averted disaster at TMI should have served to underscore the differences between US and Soviet nuclear plants, encouraging Americans to keep building the safest nuclear power facilities on the planet.

Instead, we did something uncharacteristic of Americans: We stopped building and stopped pushing the frontiers of technology. If we had reacted in a similar manner in 1947, when a port explosion in Texas City, Texas, triggered a massive fire at an oil refinery, killing 500 people, we would have turned back to firewood and horsepower.

Together, TMI and Chernobyl stunted America’s nuclear industry. Environmental groups, the news media and Hollywood used these events to turn public opinion against nuclear energy. Many in government simply waved the white flag.

Thus, nuclear power accounts for just 20 percent of America’s electrical energy, while it supplies 79.9 percent of Lithuania’s electricity needs, 78 percent of France’s and 50 percent of Sweden’s. Energy-hungry China has built nine new reactors since 1991, with plans to accelerate its nuclear-power program. Japan has “the largest commercial nuclear industry in Asia,” according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). And fully half of Ukraine’s energy comes from the atom, with 11 new reactors coming online between now and the 2030s.[11] That’s right: even the place that bears the scars of Chernobyl recognizes the benefits of nuclear power.[12]

Ukraine is not alone in grasping those benefits. A growing number of environmentalists, who once led the charge against nuclear power, have experienced an epiphany of sorts, owing largely to the minimal atmospheric impact of nuclear energy. In fact, a recent USA Today analysis found that the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, Union of Concerned Scientists, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense all express a willingness “to consider nuclear power as part of a long-term solution to global warming.”[13]

Even Patrick Moore, one of the founders of anti-nuke standard-bearer Greenpeace, is now an advocate of nuclear energy. In fact, he co-chairs the Nuclear Energy Institute’s Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

“Greenpeace is against fossil fuel, nuclear and hydroelectric power,” Moore observed in a recent interview with Wired. “Those three technologies produce over 99 percent of world energy. What kind of a path to a sustainable future is that?”[14]

He envisions nuclear power accounting for 50 percent of US electricity production by the end of this century.

Key political leaders seem open to that possibility. That’s good news for America’s “nuclear renaissance,” since one of its strongest advocates, Bush, left office in January 2009.

“We should explore nuclear power as part of the energy mix,” says President Barack Obama, who wants to reduce oil consumption by 35 percent by 2030.[15]

Yet the upfront costs of nuclear power are significant—a nuclear reactor now in the planning stages for Maryland may cost $4 billion—but if the US had kept building nuclear power plants at its pre-TMI pace, it might have been able to cushion the shock of recent spikes in energy prices.

Instead, Americans are left scrambling for ways to weather another energy crisis and all of its side-effects—at home and abroad.

Energy is the currency of the early 21st century, empowering men like Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the petrocrats of Saudi Arabia.

“OPEC countries earned an estimated $690 billion from oil exports last year, nearly three times the revenues earned in 2003,” as then-Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell reported last year. “The increased revenues also have enabled producers like Iran, Venezuela, Sudan and Russia to garner enhanced political, economic and even military advantages.”[16]

In this way, energy becomes a weapon. When Chavez wants to hurt the US, he raises the prospect of selling his oil to China or using his oil wealth to prop up other regional troublemakers or buy Russian warplanes. When Iran wants to do likewise, it threatens to close the Straits of Hormuz, funds terrorists in Iraq and Lebanon and builds its own nuclear plants. When Moscow wants to send a message to its neighbors, it shuts off pipelines into Europe.

It is in America’s interest to expand its energy-supply options. Nuclear energy is part of the equation, as are hybrid technologies, renewables, conservation strategies and even fossil fuels from right here in North America.

According to a study by the Fraser Institute, the US has “considerable conventional petroleum reserves yet to be developed in Alaska and offshore, and substantial reserves of non-conventional oil and gas, such as coal-bed methane and petroleum associated with shale formations.”[17]

In fact, estimates reported by the EIA indicate that the US has 29.9 billion barrels of proven oil reserves.[18] And that number is actually growing, as new fossil-fuel finds are discovered:

  • Chevron has found a field in the Gulf of Mexico containing perhaps 15 billion barrels of oil.[19]
  • The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil. About a third of the oil is in Alaskan territory.[20]
  • RAND estimates that Colorado, Utah and Wyoming sit atop a goldmine of oil-shale deposits. According to RAND’s James Bartis, “We’ve got more oil in this very compact area than the entire Middle East.” These states hold between 500 billion and 1.1 trillion recoverable barrels. And as the price of oil rises, the cost of converting oil-shale into petroleum becomes relatively cheaper.[21] Likewise, oil sands in the Canadian province of Alberta are expected to produce three million barrels of oil per day by 2020.[22]
  • As The Economist has reported, geologists call a swath of the Rocky Mountain states “the Persian Gulf of gas,” thanks to discoveries of between 165 trillion and 260 trillion cubic-feet of natural gas.[23]

In other words, the US actually possesses more oil and gas than several of the world’s energy-exporting giants, which means the US has plenty of options. To be sure, these reserves won’t last forever. But along with expanded nuclear energy, they are enough to carry the US, comfortably, into what might be called the post-petro economy.

It is simply a matter of will.

[1] George W. Bush speech, June 21, 2007.

[2] Bush, June 21, 2007.

[3] William Welch, “Some rethinking nuke opposition,” USA Today, March 23, 2007.

[4] US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Expected New Nuclear Power Plant Applications,” February 27, 2008.


[6] US Department of Energy, “Summary of the Energy Policy Act of 2005,” 2005, www.ne.doe.gov/energyPolicyAct2005/neEPACT2a.html.

[7] CBS News/New York Times Poll May 4-6, 2007, http://www.pollingreport.com/energy.htm.

[8] Civilian Radioactive Waste Management Office, “History Of The Nuclear Waste Program,” www.ocrwm.doe.gov/ym_repository/about_project/history.shtml; DOE, “DOE marks milestone in submitting YuccaMountain license application,” June 3, 2008.

[9] US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “Three Mile Island Accident,” http://www.nrc.gov/.

[10] US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Accident, http://www.nrc.gov/.

[11] The List: Sapping Europe’s Energy,” Foreign Policy magazine, May 2006.

[12] See Energy Information Administration, “Nuclear Power,” http://www.eie.doe.gov/; Foreign Policy, “The List: Sapping Europe’s Energy,” http://www.foreignpolicy.com/.

[13] William Welch, “Some rethinking nuke opposition,” USA Today, March 23, 2007.

[14] Alexis Madrigal, “Co-founder of Greenpeace envisions a nuclear future,” Wired, November 19, 2007.

[15] Quoted in Elizabeth Souder, “Nuclear plants become a factor in elections,” Dallas Morning News, January 27, 2008.

[16] Michael McConnell, Annual Threat Assessment of the Intelligence Community
for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, 7 February 2008.

[17] Ralph Klein and Brian Tobin with Gerry Angevine, “A Vision for a Continental
Energy Strategy,” Fraser Institute, February 2008

[18] See Energy Information Administration, “World Proved Reserves of Oil and Natural Gas, Most Recent Estimates,” January 9, 2007, http://www.eie.doe.gov/.

[19] Chris Isadore, “Major US oil source is tapped,” CNNMoney.com, September 5, 2006.

[20] Joe Carroll, “Arctic may hold 90 billion barrels of oil, US says,” Bloomberg News, July 23, 2008.

[21] Jennifer Talhelm, “Study Reveals Huge US Oil-Shale Field,” The Seattle Times, September 1, 2005.

[22] Alberta Energy, “Alberta’s Oil Sands,” www.energy.gov.ab.ca/OurBusiness/oilsands.asp.

[23] The Economist, “Home on the range,” August 18, 2005.