Acton Commentary

Obama’s Nuclear Promise: Too Little, But Not Too Late


One relatively overlooked aspect of President Obama’s State of the Union address in January was the promise of “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.” In pursuit of this vision, the president announced last week that he was tripling to more than $54 billion the amount of guaranteed loan money made available by the government for the development of new nuclear plants. What’s needed more than increased funds from the government, however, is the streamlined approval of license applications already pending at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Addressing what’s been called a licensing “bottleneck” and loosening up the nuclear power market in the United States needs to be the top priority for a federal government focused on addressing the paired challenges of economic development and environmental stewardship. Letting nuclear power compete on a level playing field, without either direct government subsidy or delay, would position the American economy for future success. Over the last decade the federal government has run up record-setting deficits, fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and more recently pushing stimulus money to pull the American economy out of a crippling recession. This dire economic situation makes quick action to move toward this “new generation” of nuclear power vitally important. The promise of nuclear energy is a key way to balance the responsibility entrusted to us by God to be good stewards of our economic as well as natural resources.

Back in 2004 the Copenhagen Consensus examined what it considered the top 10 challenges and solutions facing the world, and it ranked all the climate change proposals as “bad projects,” because of the economic devastation that would be wreaked by solutions like cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, and the Kyoto Protocol. The basis for this judgment is the economic reality of “opportunity costs.” The money spent on compliance with carbon reduction policies are consumed in functionally retrograde ways, reducing the economic progress that would be enjoyed in the future.

Nobel laureate Vernon L. Smith, a professor of economics and law at George Mason University, writes, “Earlier generations have the responsibility of leaving subsequent generations a capital stock that has not been diminished by incurring premature abatement costs.” Copenhagen Consensus participant Thomas C. Schelling, a professor at the University of Maryland, puts it this way, “Future generations will be much richer than current ones, and it thus makes no sense to make current generations ‘pay’ for the problems of future generations.” Common to each of these proposals judged “bad” by the consensus, as well as to the major proposals pending in Congress, is that they pit economic development against the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Not so with nuclear energy. Indeed, various congressional energy proposals aimed at reducing emissions through carbon taxes or cap-and-trade measures include the assumption that over the next twenty years nearly 100 new nuclear power plants will be built, each one representing a significant source of new jobs and long-term energy stability. The first project to receive funding under President Obama’s loan promise is a pair of new nuclear reactors at a Southern Company plant in Burke, Georgia, which will produce enough power to run 550,000 homes. Meanwhile these reactors are estimated to create about 3,000 onsite construction jobs and around 850 permanent operations jobs.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader has opined that the promise of nuclear energy is an empty one, and asks a pertinent question: “If these nuclear power plants are so efficient, so safe, why can’t they be built with unguaranteed private risk capital?” Nader presumes that these facilities are unable to find adequate private financing, and that “no insurance companies will insure them at any price.”

The NRC currently has received 18 applications (for a total of 28 new nuclear units), but even the newly promised funds would only underwrite about a dozen new stations. That means that applications for about two-dozen facilities were filed without the promise of government guarantees. The most productive course for President Obama would be to leave off government underwriting of new plants and move ahead with approval of pending applications, clearing the way for private financing of nuclear projects.

The last time the NRC granted an operating license for a nuclear facility was 1996. The government and the market should take up Nader’s challenge, eliminate bureaucratic delays, and see if nuclear power really is competitive. If it is, then the responsible thing to do is to let it play an increasing role in a future that demands clean, efficient sources of energy.