Christine Todd Whitman: What’s The Most Effective Path To Clean Energy? Go Nuclear

Overlooking nuclear energy as part of America’s clean energy strategy would be tantamount to unilateral disarmament.

Image credit: Thinkstock
Image credit: Thinkstock

Clean, green and reliable — these should be the core elements of our nation’s energy policy in the 21stcentury and beyond. Accepting any lesser criteria will hinder our efforts to reduce carbon pollution and provide clean air for all Americans to breathe. That’s why we cannot afford to lose the most important tool in our clean energy arsenal: carbon-free nuclear energy.

Solar and wind power clearly have an important role to play in our nation’s energy future. Yet despite tremendous growth over the last 10 years, solar and wind combined supply less than 4 percent of our nation’s clean energy, while nuclear energy supplies nearly 20 percent of our nation’s electricity and an astounding 63 percent of our carbon-free energy. As we shape our nation’s future clean energy mix, three guiding principles are key:

  1. Nuclear energy continues to be our nation’s clean energy workhorse.

Renewables face a sizeable challenge: No one has solved the issues of reliability and storage associated with them. The wind could be blowing on Monday, but then it stops until Thursday — or even three Thursdays from now. That’s not a factor that can be controlled. Nor can electricity from wind and solar facilities be moved long distances or stored. We do know that renewables will not always be available 24/7. That means the electricity system needs a baseload, always-on source of power.

Enter nuclear energy, one of the most efficient forms of power. And it is getting more efficient every year. Even during severe weather events — such as Hurricane Sandy, when high winds and flooding knocked out other facilities; or “polar vortex” events, when natural gas would not move through pipelines — nuclear energy facilities continued to run without incident.

I believe we may be able to get there, but until a viable storage solution is developed, we will have to have a steady supply of power that is always there — and that comes from nuclear energy.

  1. Nuclear energy is our most effective tool in combatting climate change.

We’re already seeing damages to our environment and changes in our climate that threaten our health and safety due to climate change. Put simply, we have to contain carbon emissions. That is what the EPA is attempting to do with the Clean Power Plan, which limits the amount of carbon that power plants in each state emit. Unfortunately, many states aren’t even putting up a fight to keep their nuclear facilities open. These legislators are failing to see the big picture. Perhaps they, like many people, simply assume it’s possible to replace nuclear energy with renewables. However, due to nuclear energy’s very high rates of efficiency, it’s not a 1:1 trade.

For instance, it was recently announced that the Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station in Massachusetts will close in 2019. Under EPA’s climate rules, Massachusetts already had to produce an additional 457,000 megawatt hours of clean energy by 2030. Without Pilgrim, that number grows to 6.3 million megawatt hours. To put that in perspective, Massachusetts would have to build wind farms a mile deep along the entire Massachusetts seaboard.

  1. We need all the help we can get to fight climate change.

We can and must do more to increase our energy efficiency, promote energy conservation and expand our use of renewable energy. We also need to prevent well-operated, safe and efficient U.S. nuclear energy facilities from shutting down prematurely. Recently, the think tank Third Way released a report that showed it is much more likely that utility companies will build natural gas facilities before they build wind or solar facilities. Natural gas is now cheap and plentiful, but it emits far more carbon emissions than renewables and nuclear energy. This moves us farther away from our clean energy goals.

Policy makers must ask themselves this: Why discard our most robust source of clean electricity, nuclear energy, in favor of unproven and less reliable sources? It is time for our leaders in government to recognize the value of nuclear energy when setting clean energy targets or working to develop plans for meeting EPA’s climate rules.

Christine Todd Whitman was governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001 and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003. She is currently co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and president of The Whitman Strategy Group, a consulting firm that specializes in helping companies find solutions to environmental challenges.

Image credit: ThinkstockImage credit: Thinkstock
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