By Brian Schimmoller, Contributing Editor
During the presidential campaign much was made of the differences between Senators Obama and McCain in terms of their support for nuclear power. However, both candidates supported CO<sub>2</sub> emission control legislation and neither candidate was fundamentally opposed to nuclear power. During the campaign, McCain promoted developing and building 45 new nuclear plants; Obama provided qualified support for nuclear power tied to resolving the waste issue, yet represents the state with the most nuclear units in the country, 11, which account for almost 50 percent of Illinois’ electricity generation.
Regardless of position on nuclear power, President-elect Obama faces daunting energy-related challenges, particularly in light of the country’s financial difficultiesrecord gasoline prices, rising electricity prices, weather-related disruptions to domestic energy production, environmental opposition to new generating capacity, an aging power transmission and delivery infrastructure. In addition to his own energy plans, partisan and non-partisan groups around the country have offered recipes for addressing America’s energy woes.
Oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens proposed the Pickens Plan as an imperative to ending America’s addiction to foreign oil. The plan suggests that domestic natural gas currently used for power generation be redirected for use as a transportation fuel. With additional transportation fuels produced from biomass, Pickens believes a significant reduction in foreign oil dependence can be accomplished.
The Council on Foreign Relations has proposed a policy plan for dealing with the effects of climate change. The Council maintains that a U.S. strategy for confronting climate change must begin at home, starting with a cap-and-trade system that sets a course for cuts of 60 percent to 80 percent from 1990 levels by 2050. Complementary actions include adopting policies that would reduce oil use; improving energy efficiency; expanding federal support for research, development and commercial-scale demonstration of low-carbon technologies; and constructing infrastructure that will support low-carbon energy.
The nonprofit Council on Competitiveness released a 100-day energy action plan for the next president. The plan emphasizes the need for sustainable and secure sources of energy but says little has been accomplished and that the next president must “effect real change.”
As inspiring as these plans are, they won’t amount to anything unless they are grounded in fundamental principles. We’ve spent so much time as a country worried about the walls that form our energy house that we’ve become blinded to the crumbling foundation. The president should demand agreement on the following principles before implementing a specific plan:
- All technologies must play a part, on both the supply side and the demand side. Widespread recognition is needed that the energy “solution” does not have to be a zero-sum game. Renewable energy, energy efficiency, distributed generation, coal-fired generation, and yes, nuclear generation, have distinct roles in satisfying energy demand, consistent with other economic and environmental constraints.
- All actions must be made with an eye toward energy security. For all of the rhetoric about energy independence on both sides of the aisle, the real focus needs to be on energy security. Completely weaning the American economy from foreign energy sources sounds great but ignores the interdependency of the global energy system. Maintaining a healthy interdependence with global energy markets can ameliorate economic impacts and contribute to an effective energy steady state, provided safeguards are in place to ensure foreign dependence remains at manageable levels.
- All actions must strive to reduce overall environmental impact. Climate change concerns, local and regional air quality impacts, water availability constraints and aesthetic sensitivities are adding tremendous pressure to energy-related decisions. Such pressures will only increase as populations grow and as more people labor to improve their standard of living. The sustainability reports that many companies are now producing are only the first step. In years ahead, environmental issues will become as fundamental to business processes as rate of return.
- All actions must be made with an awareness of their impact on the American economy. Divorcing energy decisions from their effects on economic competitiveness may resonate with personal yearnings for altruism and the public good, but such bifurcation threatens long-term economic stability. If companies can’t rationally and equally evaluate energy investments from all anglestechnical, economic, environmentalthe result is an unbalanced economy built on a shaky foundation.
I have intentionally limited direct reference to nuclear power, even though many of the energy plans outlined here specifically assign nuclear power a prominent role. For example, the Council on Foreign Relations report states, “Nuclear power plays a strong role in almost every careful assessment of a world with deeply reduced greenhouse gas emissions.”
The particular plan is less important than the principles. Recall that while the energy policies of the 1960s and 1970s succeeded in bringing nuclear power to prominence as a generation source, they did not cement nuclear power’s role as a viable, long-term source. If actions are taken in the direction and context of the principles outlined here, nuclear power will benefit in the long run.