by Michael Shellenberger
I am very happy to announce the publication of an open letter to President-elect Donald Trump and Governor Rick Perry, urging them to unite Americans and the world around an inspiring new vision: making nuclear great again.
Co-authors include climate scientists, climate skeptics, and scholars from American Enterprise Institute and Brookings Institution. At a time when America is more divided than ever, nuclear stands out in its ability to unites liberals, conservatives and a growing number of environmentalists. I invite you to add your name.
As I note in a new oped in USA Today, a focus on making nuclear reactors for export may seem quixotic. After all, nuclear energy is struggling against cheap natural gas and heavily subsidized renewables. And historically, nuclear plants have been built locally, not manufactured.
But, the letter signers note, global demand for electricity is set to rise 70% over the next 25 years, mostly due to increased energy demand in developing nations.
And technological advances mean that new nuclear reactor components can increasingly be mass-manufactured in factories and shipped around the world for re-assembly on-site.
What’s at stake is a market worth $500 to $740 billion over the next decade, according to Commerce Department, and hundreds of thousands of high-skill and high-wage jobs.
U.S. leadership on nuclear dates back to 1953, when President Dwight Eisenhower announced a U.S.-led effort “to provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world.” It was called “Atoms for Peace.”
It was a win-win for U.S. and energy-hungry developing nations. Thanks to this effort, the U.S. today gets 20% of its electricity from nuclear plants which employ 32,000 workers directly, and create an additional 200,000 jobs in the economy.
And simply helping China to build four nuclear plants has created 20,000 jobs in 20 U.S. states, according to Westinghouse, whose nuclear division is based in the U.S. but owned by the Japanese conglomerate Toshiba.
Global competition is threatening. “Despite the U.S. civil nuclear industry’s strengths,” the Commerce Department warned earlier this year, “U.S. companies continue to lose significant market share to an ever‐increasing number of foreign government‐owned or led competitors, including Russia, Japan, France, China and the Republic of Korea.”
The reason is clear: those nations offer low-cost loans to nations seeking to finance nuclear plant construction. The U.S. does not.
Meanwhile, China is racing past America in terms of innovation. China has at least four next generation nuclear reactors in the works, including one financed by Bill Gates, who is expected to put millions and perhaps billions of his own money into the joint venture.
The situation facing nuclear plants domestically is urgent. Five U.S. nuclear plants have closed prematurely since 2013. Now 50% to 75% of all U.S. nuclear plants could be shuttered in just a few years, threatening 100,000 to 150,000 high-wage jobs.
The problem isn’t that nuclear plants are uneconomical, it’s that they are punished by discriminatory policies that treat one zero-carbon energy option more favorably than another.
Trump and Congress should seize opportunity from the crisis. What’s needed is a comprehensive vision and bold leadership on infrastructure, tax reform and energy policy.
Every one of the five nuclear plants that closed in recent years could have kept running had there been some incentive for owners to invest in retrofits and repairs. The infrastructure bill that Trump and Congress are talking about is the right place to provide just such an incentive.
Such an incentive could quickly create thousands of jobs. Building a new plant employs 3,500 people at peak construction, and preventing one from closing saves 500 to 1,500 jobs.
Tax reform should level the playing field. If there is an incentive for pollution-free power it should go to nuclear plants and coal plants that capture their air pollution, not just wind and solar.
To support innovation, Trump and Congress should take a page from history and authorize the Departments of Defense and Energy to demonstrate and purchase advanced nuclear reactors for use at military bases and laboratories.
The Department of Defense already does this with the nuclear reactors it uses in submarines and aircraft carriers, and this approach helped make General Electric the global leader in turbine manufacturing.
Such an effort will require new regulations. It makes no sense to regulate jet planes the same way we do propeller planes and yet that is precisely how the federal government treats new nuclear reactor types.
This new Atoms for Peace effort could inspire and unite the country and the world around something almost everyone wants: cheap, clean energy.
Trump should work Congress to significantly increase the financing of U.S. nuclear plants in foreign nations, and personally involve himself in selling projects to allied nations. Such work will directly create jobs in the United States and abroad, and provide one of the most important drivers of economic growth: abundant and inexpensive power.
Given that nuclear is our largest source of clean energy — and the only one proven capable of scaling up rapidly — a new Atoms for Peace effort will do more for clean air and climate change than any number of pollution regulations or United Nations treaties.
Nuclear energy brings together climate scientists and climate skeptics, liberals and conservatives. Could it bring together America — and the world?