Dear President Obama:
I was heartened to hear that you have put fighting climate change near the top of your “to do” list during your second term. It is time for you to dig through your memory banks, your pile of correspondence and the lessons you are learning by studying Eisenhower’s presidency to realize that you already know the right answer to the question.
As a rising young politician in Illinois, a state that obtains 50% of its electricity from the largest concentration of nuclear power plants in any state in the United States, you obtained the support of seasoned nuclear energy professionals at Exelon and at the Argonne National Laboratory. They taught you the importance of clean energy, and showed you that nuclear energy has an impressive and improving safety record built on a culture that aggressively learns lessons from mistakes made anywhere in the world.
After your first election, you received an open letter from Dr. James Hansen, one of the most prominent and prescient voices in the battle against climate change. He told you about the importance of effective solutions and he mentioned the incredible opportunity provided by advanced reactors, like the Integral Fast Reactor that was developed at the Argonne National Lab, located just a few miles outside of Chicago.
That system can turn material from former nuclear weapons into a forever fuel source by using it to make depleted uranium a valuable fuel. He did not mention them specifically, but we also have developed similarly impressive systems like the molten salt reactors that run on thorium and the high temperature gas reactors that can produce industrial process heat as well as electricity.
As Dr. Hansen pointed out, nuclear fission reactors are reliable power sources that do not produce any greenhouse gases. In addition to advocating investments in nuclear energy research and development programs for advanced reactors, he also pointed out that we have refined, 3rd generation light water reactors that are ready for immediate building programs.
One 3rd generation design is now so ready that the shovels have been moving in earnest for several years in Georgia and South Carolina at Plant Vogtle and VC Summer. Those two sites are employing about 5,000 people at wages that can support a family; there are thousands more supporting the projects in numerous locations throughout the industrial heartland of the United States. A second advanced design from GE is nearly ready for approval, while at least two others are winding their way through the rather slow moving Nuclear Regulatory Commission process, which has not yet established enabling new nuclear reactors as a high priority activity.
There have been reports recently that you are studying one of the most effective presidents of the 20th century for guidance as you decide how to spend your next four years in office. As you well know, President Dwight D. Eisenhower – called Ike by almost everyone – knew a bit about the dangers of the military industrial complex. I hope you have also discovered that he knew a great deal about the incredible potential offered by effectively using nuclear materials and industrial capacity for peace, not for weapons. One of his most important speeches, in terms of its long term impact on the United States and the world, was made in December 1953 to the assembled body of the United Nations. That speech has long been remembered as Atoms for Peace. Here are some of the words from that speech that offered hope and change for the world.
The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. The capability,already proved, is here today. Who can doubt that, if the entire body of the world’s scientists and engineers had adequate amounts of fissionable material with which to test and develop their ideas, this capability would rapidly be transformed into universal, efficient and economic usage?
Ike’s vision delivered hope and change for many years. In the 20 years after that speech, the US started enough new nuclear power plants to supply 40% of the nation’s electricity. About three times that many were begun in other countries around the world. Our manufacturers prospered and created hundreds of thousands of good jobs for products used both here and abroad.
Unfortunately, about half of the nuclear projects that started were not completed or were shut down well before the end of their useful life. There were many factors that led to that unhappy result, but the good news is that the plants that were completed produce about 30% more electricity every year that all of the power plants in the US combined produced in 1960. Their 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year help the US avoid producing more than 600 million tons of CO2 every year. That is almost as much CO2 prevention as the total amount released from all of the passenger cars on the road.
A move to enable nuclear energy to prosper does not require much from you. A few carefully chosen words from the bully pulpit would help the NRC to recognize that efforts to license new reactors should receive a high priority. A few more words might help the commissioners and the staff to more completely understand how you interpret the NRC’s current mission statement:
The mission of the NRC is to license and regulate the Nation’s civilian use of byproduct, source, and special nuclear materials in order to protect public health and safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment.
A regulatory agency with that mission should recognize that new nuclear plants protect public health and safety, promote the common defense and security and protect the environment, especially in an era where there is a large stockpile of refined nuclear materials that should be put into protected locations – and what location in the world has more layers of protection than an operating nuclear reactor – and where there is legitimate concern that CO2 emitted from power plants might be putting our children and grandchildren’s future prosperity at risk.
This is not a call for short cuts on safety, but every bureaucrat who has been on the job more than a few days knows that high priority efforts can be done much more expeditiously and at lower cost than those where every step of the process involves waiting in line in someone’s in-box. Regulatory reviews take some time, but they can also be purposely stretched into career length tasks if prompt completion is not encouraged.
An emphasized nuclear option in your energy policy has wide ranging political benefits. It fits in with “all of the above” by ensuring that the best of the above is not put at a disadvantage by taking too long or having support that seems too uncertain for making long term investment decisions. It does not require much in the way of public money – reducing regulatory slowdowns during reviews should cost less, not more. It does not require unpleasant sacrifices because after they are completed, nuclear plants are some of the lowest cost, most reliable generators on the grid. It does not even require you to ask Republicans to swallow bitter pills; they already like nuclear energy and would probably jump at the chance to help you move forward in that direction.
Mr. President, you have an opportunity that you cannot pass up. Please take advantage of your unique time in history to make the world a better, safer, cleaner, more prosperous and more equally hopeful place.