Guest column

We need to preserve and expand nuclear energy

By John Barrasso
Posted 11/21/19

Nuclear power provides clean, reliable, carbon free energy, to one in five American homes and businesses.

It should be a central, growing share of our nation’s energy mix if we are going to …

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Guest column

We need to preserve and expand nuclear energy

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Nuclear power provides clean, reliable, carbon free energy, to one in five American homes and businesses.

It should be a central, growing share of our nation’s energy mix if we are going to be serious about addressing our changing climate.

Nuclear power generated a record amount of electricity last year.

We trace today’s use of nuclear power to the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the nation’s first commercial nuclear power plant. In 1958, the Pennsylvania site first generated electricity for civilian use. The Shippingport operation also established a founding principle of nuclear regulation.

The company licensed to operate the reactor holds the primary responsibility for nuclear safety. Government regulators remained onsite to make sure the operators met all the safety requirements. This model remains in place for the 96 nuclear reactors in operation today.

The number of operating nuclear reactors peaked at 112 in 1990. The number of U.S. reactors has shrunk since then: In the last seven years, nine nuclear reactors have been shut down.

Those nine reactors generated enough clean, carbon free energy to power over 11 million homes. Another eight reactors are scheduled to close over the next five years.

Together, the carbon free energy generated from those eight reactors is roughly equal to all the energy produced by solar panels last year in the United States. It is time to reverse this trend.

We need to preserve and expand our use of nuclear energy. To achieve that goal, the American public must have confidence in the safe use of nuclear material.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff reports that safety has improved over the last 20 years. Today, nuclear power plants are performing at historically high levels of safety and efficiency. Improved safety leads to more efficient reactor operation. Reactors have fewer unplanned shutdowns and have increased safety margins.

Nuclear utilities should continually strive for safety excellence. The industry does so through the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations. The Institute’s mission is built on their core values — engagement, nuclear safety, broad industry support, accountability, independence and confidentiality. These values can allow our nation to transition to advanced nuclear technologies.

Navigating the regulatory approval process for new nuclear technologies requires substantial financial commitment. Rigid, costly regulations will stunt the growth of nuclear innovation. American businesses that invest in advanced technologies must have confidence in future safety rules. The rules must be based on the performance and risk of their reactor designs, not the inflexible legacy of previous technologies.

Last Congress, this committee led the effort to get the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act signed into law. The law requires predictable and efficient safety regulations for advanced nuclear technologies. The law will help stimulate the development and deployment of advanced nuclear technologies. 

Nuclear power plants are just one piece of preserving and expanding our nuclear industry. The entire nuclear fuel cycle, starting with America’s uranium producers, must be valued.

Wyoming is our nation’s largest uranium producer. Russia’s strategic decision to flood the market with subsidized uranium has put Wyoming’s uranium mining at risk.

President Donald Trump recognized that preserving domestic uranium production, instead of relying on foreign imports, is a national security issue. He established a Nuclear Fuel Working Group to recommend actions to help America’s nuclear fuel cycle.

I look forward to the Working Group’s report and urge President Trump to take swift action to support our nation’s uranium producers.

We must also address what we do with the nuclear fuel after it is used. Washington is long overdue to fulfill our legal obligation to permanently dispose of nuclear waste. That includes advancing a nuclear waste policy centered on completing the scientific review of the Yucca Mountain site. I put forth draft legislation to do so.

If we are serious about addressing climate change, we must be serious about increasing nuclear power. That means: advancing performance-based safety rules, deploying advanced nuclear technologies, ensuring we maintain U.S. uranium production and permanently disposing of nuclear waste.

(U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. This column was adapted from remarks he made at a Wednesday, Nov. 13 committee hearing titled, “Preserving and Expanding Clean, Reliable Nuclear Power: U.S. Commercial Nuclear Reactor Performance Trends and Safety Initiatives.”)

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