December 12, 2007 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Hot for Nukes

Environmental lobbyists have America between a rock and, well, a hot place.

Raising cataclysmic alarms about global warming, they insist that the road to climate disaster is paved with human-generated emissions of carbon dioxide. Among the worst villains, they say, are fossil-fuel burning power plants. Their crime: creating massive amounts of CO2 while producing electricity.

Most Americans are concerned about the environment, but we like our electricity, too. So what to do? The logical answer: Build more nuclear power plants.

"Wrong," reply the activists. "Nuclear power is bad."

But to the extent that global warming is a problem, nuclear power must be part of the solution. In fact, it's already playing a big role, supplying some 20 percent of our electricity.

That's already paying off, environmentally speaking. Even though America hasn't built a new commercial reactor in decades, the 104 plants currently operating prevented the release 681.9 million metric tons of CO2 in 2005. That's a lot of emissions. In fact, that's like taking 24 of every 25 cars in our whole country off the road!

Nuclear plants are environmentally friendly because nuclear fission produces no atmospheric emissions. No CO2. No smoke. Nothing. Plants powered by fossil fuels, by contrast, emit like crazy.

Relying more on nukes could reduce some of the inconsistencies urged by the Environmental Industry, too. Consider, for example, their distaste for CO2 emitting cars and trucks. They advocate replacing these vehicles with hybrid cars, which operate partly on batteries.

But even battery-powered vehicles must be charged. If the electricity used to juice the batteries comes from a coal- or gas-fired plant, the car is still -- indirectly -- generating CO2 emissions. If the electricity comes from a nuclear generator, though, the problem is truly solved.

Nuclear power isn't new. It's a tried and tested technology that's safe, reliable and economically viable.

And investors are eager to expand the use of nuclear power to generate electricity. In fact, utility companies with nuclear experience have sought to purchase existing plants, are upgrading their operating plants and are extending their licenses so that they can produce more energy for a longer time. Perhaps the only roadblock is certain activists, many of whom describe themselves as environmentalists.

Back in the 1970s, they painted nightmare scenarios about potential meltdowns to stop new plant construction. But it's worth remembering that the worst incident in U.S. history -- the partial meltdown of a reactor core at Three Mile Island back in 1979 -- produced zero casualties.

People near that plant were exposed to an average estimated dose of about 1 millirem of radiation. That's far less than the typical 2.5 millirem you receive on an airplane flight from Los Angeles to New York. Almost 30 years of hindsight later, the "threat" of nukes appears wildly overblown. Ask France, which produces 80 percent of its electricity through nuclear power.

As an alternative to nuclear power, the Environmental Industry pushes greater -- and ever more government subsidized -- use of renewable power sources, including wind, solar and geothermal. But we've been trying to develop these sources for decades, and none is even close to being ready to meet our nation's energy needs. Nuclear power, meanwhile, already provides about one fifth of our electricity, despite heavy regulation that artificially drives costs up substantially. It's a track record no other alternative energy source can match.

There's no sign that Americans intend to reduce our use of electricity. In fact, our growing nation will undoubtedly need even more power. So until we change the way we generate power -- a process that must begin with the expansion of nuclear energy -- we're likely to see a steady increase in CO2 emissions.

Nuclear power is reliable, safe and environmentally friendly. True nature lovers should start stumping for more nuclear plants, not fewer.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office