Nuclear Energy: A Vital Energy Source That the U.S. is Missing
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Nuclear Energy: A Vital Energy Source That the U.S. is Missing

France has pursued an aggressive program of nuclear power since the 1970's, and its efforts are paying off in the form of cheap and clean energy for its citizens.

The year was 1973. France had its mind set on a revolution, because it was tired of the status quo. It wasn't revolting against the government, but against the world energy situation. Oil and gas prices had quadrupled, bringing many oil-importing nations to their knees. France made up its mind to pursue an aggressive nuclear energy program and build a number of reactors in order to promote cheap and independent energy sources within the nation. It was driven by both the technical research capability of such a program, and the lack of availability of indigenous fossil fuels such as coal. Today, it is evident that France succeeded, and the French people enjoy a cheap source of green, yes, green, energy. 78% of France's electricity comes from nuclear power, and French overproduction has been exported to other countries (notably Italy) for the significant sum of about 3 billion Euros per year.

Perception of nuclear power is poor here in the United States. The Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island incidents received immense news coverage, and while Chernobyl was not a local incident and the Three-Mile reactor merely had a malfunction in which the safeguards operated properly and no harm was done, the damage done to the idea of nuclear power in the United States was complete. It could have even perhaps been an outward manifestation of not wanting to associate ourselves with nuclear power after the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Whether deliberate foreign policy or public perception NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) politics has been the rule with regard to nuclear power. According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. derives 20.2% of its power from nuclear plants, while it pulls 44.4% from coal and 23.6% from natural gas

Recently, with its surplus of cheap electricity, France has discovered that the electric vehicle market is becoming viable, and French consumers are beginning to purchase large numbers of electric cars. Here in the United States, however, we do not have a large power surplus. Even if we did have one, we still derive a large portion of our power generation from the volatile fossil fuels market, which lends to price instability. It also means that electric cars wouldn't be a green technology at all because of the origin of the electricity which they utilize.

The French government has operated their nuclear program in relative safety. The most serious disaster occurred when three workers entered a particle accelerator in 1992 without protection and were contaminated with radioactivity. Executives were jailed for this episode of mismanagement. 59 reactors have continued operation quite silently and without serious incident since the 1970's. Plans to add more and larger reactors are currently online, and France looks forward to a bright future of even cheaper electricity and greater revenues in the form of electricity, which currently stands as its fourth-largest source of export revenues.

In the United States, however, we have been slow to move upon this form of technology. Nuclear power is a proven, reliable source of energy, and it can form a powerful cornerstone of any energy mix. Yet, for some reason, applications for nuclear power plants, which are interestingly enough mostly from the Southern and Southeastern parts of the country, are often turned down. What is the reason for this? Are there fossil fuel lobbyists that are afraid to lose their large market share of our energy production? Or is it that we as Americans cannot see the benefits of this source of power? Nuclear power has not received a noticeable amount of support from environmentalists, who claim that the technology can provide great harm toward the environment. This claim has been repeatedly disproven. It should be noted that France places a great deal of importance upon environmental impact as well, and in France, this actually motivated them to pursue the nuclear program aggressively!

In a paper by the Energy Information Administration, viewable here: nuclear power has been indicated to produce much less volume of waste per electricity generated. Also important is that this waste is not pumped into the air as waste gases and particulates, but emitted as contained solid waste and hot water! What could be more environmentally friendly? If we as Americans want to promote our economy to the greatest degree possible, then we must follow the example of France and change our power mix into a majority nuclear situation. If we want to continue pumping coal and gas fumes into the air, and paying more for electricity than we could be, then inaction is the best policy. There is simply no reason not to push for adoption of this sensible technology.


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Comments (3)
John Wheeler

I could not agree with you more: the USA needs to keep every existing nuclear plant running and deploy dozens of new nuclear power plants to (1) reduce fossil fuel consumption (2) minimize imports of oil and gas and (3) stop exporting jobs that we need at home.

Many people hail France as the country that "did nuclear energy correctly." Few people realize that French nuclear plants are based on the US-designed Westinghouse Pressurized Water Reactor, and the USA has more commercial nuclear plants (104) than any other nation. We need political leadership to break the impass that is preventing the USA from regaining our nuclear energy leadership.

John Wheeler

Producer, This Week in Nuclear

I have solar panels on the roof of my garage, I think solar is a brilliant option.

Luca Semprini

Public misinformation about safety of nuclear power is certainly a major issue. But we should not forget about the substantial start-up costs of this technology, which make it difficult to attract private investors without the government's legislative back-up.

Federal climate legislation is the key to developing this energy source further. Plant Vogtle is a positive example among many plants that are soon to cease operations (e.g., Vermont Yankee).

Learn more about the ongoing debate and its key players