The Obama administration took office amid high hopes that it would come up with a strategy for clean, renewable energy that can work to lessen our dependence on foreign oil and reduce the pollutants associated with fossil fuels. What is puzzling, however, is the notable exclusion of nuclear energy from its portfolio of clean energy sources, which include hydroelectric, wind, and solar power. More than 73 percent of non-carbon-dioxide-emitting energy in the United States is nuclear energy. This power source supplies the country with about 20 percent of its electricity needs, while wind and solar power together supply less than 1 percent.
There is no rational explanation for the exclusion. The ability of the 104 operating U.S. nuclear plants to provide safe, clean energy is no longer in dispute, given their remarkable record since the Three Mile Island accident 30 years ago. Nor do most people question whether nuclear energy produces greenhouse gases. Is nuclear excluded because it is not perceived to be a “renewable” energy source in the way that power from the wind and sun is replenishable? In fact, some existing nuclear technologies are clearly renewable, making more fuel than they consume. These so-called breeder reactors are able to process the waste from existing reactors into fuel for their own use. Such reactors are already operating in Russia, France, and India and will soon be running in China and Japan. (Although this technology has not been deployed in the United States, the first reactor to make electricity in this country was a breeder reactor, called the Experimental Breeder Reactor-I, which began operation in the early 1950s.)
In the next 100 years or so, as our sources of fissile uranium are depleted, breeder reactors could turn existing mined-uranium wastes and high-level nuclear waste from our current fleet of water reactors into a source of clean energy that could last for thousands of years (see “Traveling-Wave Reactor”).
Nuclear power must be given all the incentives offered to solar and wind energy, including carbon credits and loan guarantees. If we are serious about addressing the problems of energy dependence and global climate change, nuclear must be part of the solution.
Andrew Kadak is Professor of the Practice in the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.