Idea Gallery: Launching a New Debate on Nuclear Energy

Jack Spencer of the Heritage Foundation

Idea Gallery is a recurring editorial series on Forum on Energy in which guest authors provide their perspective on issues affecting nuclear energy. Today’s guest author is Jack Spencer, Senior Research Fellow, Nuclear Energy Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Nuclear power is a clean, safe and affordable energy source. Indeed, America’s 104 nuclear plants produce some of the nation’s most affordable energy. Yet significant problems, such as inefficient regulations and a broken nuclear waste management system, make building new U.S. nuclear plants exceedingly difficult.

Despite these problems, the debate over nuclear energy tends to concentrate on whether one supports nuclear technology in the abstract. While important, this debate is misplaced. Politicians should not determine whether nuclear energy moves forward — America’s energy producers and consumers should. Politicians should instead focus on solving the policy issues facing nuclear energy. Once those issues are addressed, questions of affordability or desirability can be answered in the marketplace.

Two years ago, The Heritage Foundation set out to reframe the debate by developing a documentary to help answer some of the basic questions that people have about nuclear power. Is it safe? How does it work? What do we do about nuclear waste? The result is Powering America, a film that pulls back the curtain on nuclear energy to reveal uranium mining and milling in Canada; new construction and operating plants in the United States’ and nuclear waste processing activities in France.

Watch a trailer for Powering America:

The documentary also tells the stories of the people whose lives are affected by the industry each day. Powering America relies on the people who live around and work in nuclear facilities to bring their familiarity with the technology to a broader audience. The film profiles individuals who were directly involved with the accident at Three Mile Island, as well as families and farmers that continue to thrive in communities neighboring nuclear plants. Viewers will also visit with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman, Gregory Jaczko, to learn how he works to keep America’s reactors safe. Of course, this conversation is especially relevant in the wake of the accident at Japan’s Fukushima reactors.

The purpose of Powering America, which was completely funded by The Heritage Foundation, is to provoke a more thoughtful discussion on nuclear energy policy. The policy questions challenging this vital energy source are not being answered and, in some cases, not even being asked. One of the documentary’s goals is to serve as a springboard for those conversations. So long as nuclear power remains mysterious and alarming, those policy discussions can never take place.

The fact remains that bad policy makes it exceedingly difficult to address both the challenges faced by existing plants and the barriers to building new U.S. plants. Regulation can be unpredictable, nuclear waste disposal solutions are mired in politics, and introducing new technologies is nearly impossible. These factors artificially drive up costs, scare investors, hinder innovation and distort the market forces that shape successful enterprises. Unfortunately, Washington’s traditional approach to fixing nuclear policy has been to micromanage the industry. Now once again — with cost estimates rising, natural gas prices dropping and public anxiety fueled by the accident at Fukushima — some question whether nuclear power has a future.

The Heritage Foundation’s contribution to this debate is built on a commitment to the free market. Instead of subsidizing nuclear power into the future or hampering it with overbearing government control, The Heritage Foundation believes that market-based policies should be put in place that allow nuclear energy to flourish — or fail — on its own. Such an approach would give the private sector the responsibility and the rewards for solving the central problems facing the industry, while the federal government’s responsibility would be to provide predictable and efficient oversight.

One thing is for sure: Without reform, nuclear power will not have as bright a future as it otherwise might. That is why the time has come for a new debate on nuclear energy policy. Powering America provides a good place to start.

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