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Nuclear Power: Lighting the Future

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Radical environmentalists didn’t like it when President Bush decided not to use the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. And they hated his lifting of the presidential ban on offshore drilling.

But whether they like it or not, our country needs a multi-pronged approach to our energy problems. A big part of any viable solution: Build more nuclear power plants.

That’s still forbidden, as far as many radical environmentalists are concerned. The folks at Greenpeace, for example, dismiss nuclear energy as “another false solution you hear a lot about these days.” Why is it “false”? Because, the group explains on its Web site, bringing a nuclear power plant online could take a number of years, and “we simply don’t have time to wait -- we need global-warming solutions that are ready to go now, like wind and solar.”

No one is claiming that we can have more nuclear power plants up and ready to go overnight. But that’s hardly an argument against building them. Indeed, because we need long-term energy solutions, the fact that it takes time to set up new plants means we should get started right away. Besides, according to Jack Spencer of The Heritage Foundation, we can reduce how long it takes. The current time frame includes four years to get a permit and five years to build the plant. But, Spencer says, once a few plants are built, there’s no reason the permitting time can’t be cut and construction done in four years.

And if Greenpeace thinks that wind and solar are “ready to go now,” it shows just how out of touch with reality the group is. Yes, wind and solar “have a role in America’s energy mix,” Spencer writes. But although the federal government has subsidized them for years, they still supply less than 1 percent of America’s energy needs. Plus, they’re expensive. As Spencer notes in a recent paper:

Coal, wind, and solar projects are all becoming increasingly expensive. If those sources were inexpensive, few would even consider building new nuclear plants, yet nearly 20 companies are pursuing construction and operating licenses for up to 30 new reactors. Renewable energy sources would not need mandates and subsidies to survive if they were affordable.

Many other nations already rely on nuclear power to supply much of their energy -- and have done so for years. In another paper, Spencer highlights several such nations, including France, Japan, Finland and Britain. Finland gets nearly a third of its electricity from nuclear power, and that amount will soon go up; it’s building a modern 1,600-megawatt reactor. Japan draws 30 percent of its electricity from nuclear sources, an amount set to rise to 41 percent in under a decade. Britain has 19 reactors and is a net exporter of energy. Russia is building new plants as well.

France, though, is the poster child among industrialized nations for nuclear power. Nearly 80 percent of its electricity comes from nuclear power. Stung by the oil shocks of the 1970s, France began gearing up nuclear-power production years ago. Today, it’s a net exporter of electricity. Germany, by contrast, phased nuclear energy out for political reasons -- and now must import some of the energy it needs.

If Greenpeace and other like-minded groups worry about pollution, then they ought to love nuclear power’s impressive environmental record. “Burning fossil fuels releases an abundance of elements into the atmosphere,” Spencer writes. “Nuclear energy, to the contrary, fully contains all of its byproduct in the form of used nuclear fuel.” If France, Finland and Japan can manage this waste safely, why can’t we?

Back when energy was cheap, perhaps we could afford to indulge the fears of radical environmentalists. Not anymore. We need a range of solutions -- renewable energy, increased conservation, The Conservative Guide to Energy” by The Heritage Foundation.

We have a lot of lost time to make up for. It’s been more than two decades since President Reagan urged us to rely more on nuclear power. What are we waiting for?

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