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February 7, 2008

Nuclear energy: Power play

By and

Maryland's Allegheny Energy recently mailed two compact fluorescent light bulbs to each of its customers. Imagine the indignation when those customers noticed a $12 charge for the unsolicited mailing.

Despite promises that the bulbs would save money, help the environment and prevent blackouts, Allegheny's customers were peeved. They wrote letters to editors and lit fires under local politicians. Allegheny relented and agreed to pay for the bulbs.

This incident raises an important question. Why was a power company compelled to pull a stunt that predictably raised the ire of their customers?

Because utilities face a serious problem. Electricity demand is projected to increase 40 percent by 2030, according to government estimates. Meanwhile, overzealous regulators make it difficult to expand energy capacity. So power companies are left with few options - even fewer now that mailing light bulbs is a proven failure.

Unfortunately, instead of loosening regulations to induce capacity expansion, state and federal governments are moving toward rationing electricity. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, for example, wants to mandate reductions by 15 percent in electricity use by 2015 (based on 2007 usage rates) and force state utilities to produce 20 percent of their energy from solar, wind and other renewable fuels by 2022.

Proponents make it sound so simple. Just buy a new dishwasher, build a couple of windmills, put some solar cells on the roof and - voila - energy problem solved. Not really. Maryland would have to reduce its electricity consumption by about a fifth of today's use - or the equivalent of a half a million households - to meet Mr. O'Malley's objective. Since Maryland produces only 1.3 percent of its electricity from renewables, increasing that to 20 percent in the next 14 years would be daunting, to say the least.

Still, some may say, all this sounds fair enough. What's wrong with some aggressive conservation? Well, there's a lot wrong when it's unjustifiably forced upon consumers.

Think about it. The legitimacy of these draconian efforts is rooted in the notion there is an energy shortage. Conservation, after all, makes sense when there is a shortage of something.

But energy is not in short supply. There are fossil fuels, and lots of them, right here in America. Yet America is one of the few nations that chooses to leaves much of its own reserves untapped.

Yes, wind and solar power are options. But the technology hasn't advanced yet to the point where these are affordable enough or reliable enough to satisfy our growing energy demands.

Then there's nuclear power. It is emissions-free, affordable, proven and safe. It already provides the United States with 20 percent of its electricity. It can be used and recycled again and again, making it essentially limitless.

Nuclear power has the added benefit of solving many of the problems cited to justify faulty conservation plans and centrally planned energy mandates. It's abundant, environmentally friendly, free of carbon dioxide (CO2) and domestically produced. Yet officials continue to ignore its advantages.

If they're genuinely concerned about the threat of greenhouse gases or America's dependence on foreign energy, they should seek ways to expand nuclear energy. A few simple policy changes would do it.

Licensing the Yucca Mountain repository, recycling spent fuel, assuring regulatory certainty, and protecting nuclear-power operators from overzealous litigators would all facilitate near-term construction of nuclear power plants.

Yet there are too few politicians clamoring to advance such an agenda.

While nuclear energy is coming back, it is not quite back yet. The old days of anti-nuclear fear mongering may be over, but we haven't fully recovered from 30 years of anti-nuclear propaganda. As a result, many continue to distance themselves from the technology.

U.S. interests are best served by an energy mix that includes fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable energies. If it does turn out that CO2 is a problem - a conclusion for which there is no consensus, despite what we're told - then the role of nuclear energy will be even more critical.

In Maryland, planners are itching to build a nuclear power plant that would solve the state's energy supply problem and help meet its CO2 reduction goals. Unfortunately, bureaucrats are getting in the way.

The nation needs a brighter idea than light bulbs in the mail. Officials should step aside and allow American ingenuity to finally solve our energy problems.

Jack Spencer is a research fellow in nuclear energy and Nicolas Loris is a research assistant at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

Distributed nationally on the McClatchy Tribune wire

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