(CNSNews.com) - Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's recent remark that the "Iraq war is largely about oil" sparked a political nerve and made headlines. It also highlighted a problem with America's energy supply, which some analysts and policy-makers think could be solved cleanly and abundantly through nuclear power.
Nuclear energy currently provides about 20 percent of America's electricity, with 100 nuclear plants located at 65 sites in 31 states, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. By contrast, 80 percent of France's energy needs are supplied by nuclear power. Other examples include Belgium, 54 percent; Sweden, 46 percent; Switzerland, 41 percent; and Japan, 34 percent.
While the U.S. emerged as the world leader in nuclear power, research, design and construction in the latter half of the 20th century, the industry has been at a near-standstill since the Three Mile Island accident near Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979. There has not been a new nuclear plant built in America since then, largely because of environmental, political and financial considerations, according to energy policy analysts.
Both France and Japan, however, improved upon U.S. nuclear power technology and are way ahead of this country now in terms of providing energy for their citizens, former Virginia Sen. George Allen told Cybercast News Service.
America can do better, he said, particularly as more of the public learns about nuclear power's benefits and discards unnecessary regulations that are impeding America's movement towards greater energy independence.
'Straight Line from Maryland to Texas'
New nuclear power plants would offer a mix of environmental and financial benefits in the form of clean energy and lower property taxes, said Allen. Additional plants could be located, for instance, in Louisa County, Va., and Surry County, Va., where existing facilities already have yielded tangible dividends for residents, said Allen.
The demand for power that nuclear is expected to address will be in the American Southeast, where the population is expected to grow rapidly in the years ahead, Adrian Heymer, senior director for new plant development at the National Energy Institute, said in an interview.
"If you could draw a straight line from Maryland to Texas, this is where most of the new plants would be," he observed. The federal government now has licensing applications for about 30 new nuclear reactors that would be built between 2015 and 2025, Heymer said.
The new, streamlined licensing process Congress has authorized will remove a number of pre-existing hurdles for the 17 companies that are now considering additional plants, said Heymer. Under the old system, energy companies had to make their way through about two-thirds of construction before they could apply for an operating license.
But now that all safety concerns must be addressed up front, the construction permit and operating license are approved simultaneously, said Heymer.
As the U.S. seeks to pull back from its dependence on foreign energy sources in unstable regions, the appeal of nuclear energy is beginning to resonate and has even "attracted the eye of Wall Street" in a way that was not conceivable until recently, Heymer argued.
Going back to the late 1990s, only a handful of financial analysts expressed interest in pending nuclear reactor projects, he said. By comparison, more than100 analysts from financial institutions were present this year when industry officials made their case, Heymer noted.
Climate change 'new boogeyman'
The U.S. Department of Energy reported that nuclear power accounted for 54 percent of voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in 2004. The industry claims it kept 681.9 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from entering the air in 2005 -- that's the equivalent of taking 96 percent of passenger cars off the road.
Christine Todd Whitman, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said energy demand will increase by 40 percent by 2030. Whitman is now co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which advocates for more nuclear power.
"With an increase in awareness of climate change and an increased demand in energy -- everyone has a new IPOD or blackberry -- we can't continue mountaintop mining for coal," Whitman told Cybercast News Service.
Whitman added that increasing the use of nuclear energy should be done alongside increasing wind and solar energy production.
But nuclear power generates electricity, and doesn't power automobiles, one of the biggest causes of global warming, said Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace.
"The new boogeyman into frightening the public to accept this 1950s technology is climate change," Riccio told Cybercast News Service.
An independent report released in June by The Keystone Center, a diverse group of energy and environmental experts, determined that a larger growth rate of nuclear plants - greater than that currently planned by industry and government - would be needed to mitigate global warming.
'Bad terror targets'
The Keystone report also delved into safety concerns that surround the nuclear debate and which have only increased since 9/11.
The potential theft of material from bulk-fuel-handling facilities to develop nuclear weapons is a major concern, stated the report, adding that the "expansion of nuclear power in ways that substantially increases the likelihood of the spread of nuclear weapons is unacceptable."
"Reactors in the country are in violation" of general safety and environmental regulations and "the Nuclear Regulatory Commission just goes its merry way," said Greenpeace's Riccio. "To my mind it is unconscionable to build more terror targets in our midst. The 9/11 Report said Mohammed Atta was taking test flights over Indian Point." (Indian Point nuclear plant is in Buchanan, New York.)
Whitman believes the safety concerns are overstated.
"People who fly airplanes every single day are exposed to more radiation" than from nuclear plants, she said. "They don't pose a threat to human health. It's minimum radiation."
A person would have to live next door to a nuclear power plant for more than 2,000 years to get the amount of radiation exposure someone gets from a single X-ray, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.
Also, "nuclear plants are bad targets for terrorists," said Whitman. "It's the most highly regulated power in the country and they are deemed to be one of the safest places to work because they are prepared for an attack. If a plane flew into the facility, it would not cause a mushroom cloud."
Power plants have numerous built-in sensors to watch temperature, pressure, water level and other safety indicators. The sensors are designed to shut down the plant immediately and automatically, if problems occur. Because of these precautions, nuclear plants are safer work places than most other manufacturing plants, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Also, American technology and equipment is far superior to that which was used in Russia, said William Meyer, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Missouri. He points out there were about 5,000 cases of cancer in Russia after the Chernobyl explosion in 1986. But there were no such cases resulting from the Three Mile Island incident.
'Massive federal subsidies'
As long as cheaper energy alternatives are available to investors, nuclear power will remain stagnant, Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute told Cybercast News Service.
"The entire industry is propped up by the most massive set of federal subsidies ever unleashed in the energy market, with the possible exception of ethanol," he said. "Without government preference and subsidy the nuclear industry would not exist today. I believe in letting investors decide what to build and what not to build. I don't believe the government should rig the market to favor nuclear investments over other investments."
Nuclear energy has failed to gain traction not so much because of environmental opposition but because it remains a poor investment, said Taylor.
A University of Chicago study from 2004 on the economics of nuclear energy found many positive aspects, but affirmed Taylor's view on subsidies.
"Without federal financial policy assistance," for "new nuclear plants to have a levelized cost of electricity" consumer rates for nuclear energy would be between $47 and $71 per megawatt-hour, compared to gas and coal powered electric that costs between $33 and $45 per megawatt hour, the report stated, adding that nuclear costs could be reduced to between $32 and $50 per megawatt hour with assistance from loan guarantees and tax credits.
But recognizing the move toward lower carbon emissions, the same report said, "A successful transition from oil-based to hydrogen-based transportation could, in the long run, increase demand for nuclear energy as a non-polluting way to produce hydrogen."
Nuclear power is hardly the only industry to be buttressed by taxpayer dollars, advocates said.
"We subsidize all energy," said William H. Miller, professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Missouri, told Cybercast News Service. "Nuclear is not unique. The same people who are against subsidizing nuclear power want to give tax credits for hybrid cars."
Even if nuclear energy can prove itself in the marketplace, one should use caution in viewing nuclear as a "silver bullet" that would resolve America's energy challenges, said NEI's Heymer. Instead, he envisions a "balanced and diverse energy portfolio" that includes renewables, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear energy sources that can be applied to meeting rising demands.
The whole notion of energy independence peddled by politicians in both parties is a myth anyway, said Taylor. Even if nuclear power were to assume a larger percentage of electricity generation, the uranium comes from abroad, he noted.
"We import energy because it's cheaper than getting alternative sources here at home," he said. "Free trade is a good thing. Unfortunately, most Americans don't know much about economics."
Make media inquiries or request an interview about this article.
Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.
E-mail a comment or news tip to Kevin Mooney
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.