While the shale oil and gas renaissance dominates today’s energy landscape, it’s important that policymakers remember the vital contribution nuclear power makes to our nation’s energy portfolio.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, reactors in 31 states generate nearly 20 percent of America’s electrical power each year. That percentage is more than double in my home state of Illinois where nuclear even outpaces our abundant coal resources to meet 48 percent of the state’s electricity needs. For those concerned about climate change, the most salient point may be that 64 percent of emission-free electricity in America comes from nuclear. That’s more than hydroelectric, wind, solar and geothermal… combined.
For those who believe carbon free emissions are critical, nuclear is a solution; but nuclear energy today is struggling to compete with inexpensive natural gas and decreased electricity demand. Just last year, four reactors closed prematurely and there are frequent media reports that others may soon follow. In fact, the Department of Energy is currently studying a scenario where as many as one-third of our 100 remaining nuclear plants close and the resulting impact to the President’s climate change goals. More importantly, the premature closure of nuclear plants takes its toll on families and communities through job losses and decreased tax revenue. Nuclear energy also supplies reliable electricity, keeping the lights on in colder regions of the country.
While I understand and respect that much of this decline is attributable to market forces, it’s our responsibility as policymakers to think strategically and ensure our national energy portfolio remains diverse and competitive. That’s why, given the growing economic pressures, it is more important than ever that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) prioritize regulatory actions and ensure any changes to current policy are fully justified by significant safety benefits. This shouldn’t be difficult considering that in its most recent review of the industry’s long-term safety trends, the NRC reported no “statistically significant adverse trends in industry safety performance.” But that didn’t stop them from proposing 56 new regulations last year.
I fear that this growth in regulation is representative of a larger trend at the NRC. Despite the commission’s diminishing workload and shrinking number of licensees, staffing has grown 29 percent over the past ten years and the fees recovered from licensees, borne ultimately by electricity customers, has increased 58 percent. That’s unsustainable.
The NRC is the world's gold standard for nuclear safety regulation, and I want it to remain that way. The American people deserve no less. Unfortunately, resources are not infinite. Consumers’ electricity bills should not be viewed by the NRC as a blank check. The NRC must be better stewards of their funds.
Perhaps most frustrating of all, however, is the very thing NRC should be spending money on is the one thing they and the Department of Energy (DOE) refuse to seek additional funding for: Yucca Mountain. Last year the DC Circuit Court affirmed thirty years of nuclear waste policy, ordering both agencies to follow the law and resume work on the high-level waste repository deep below Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert. So far, neither has requested the necessary funds to complete their work.
As the EPA’s War on Coal inevitably turns on natural gas in years to come, the loss of nuclear plants will exacerbate our nation’s loss of baseload electricity generation. Without these proven, reliable, affordable energy supplies, we’ll be left in the dark. For our long term energy security and affordability, we must take steps today to ensure the continued availability of nuclear energy as part of our all-of-the-above strategy to meet future electricity needs.
Congressman Shimkus represents the 15th District of Illinois and chairs the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy. A version of this article, as well as other energy commentary from Energy and Commerce Committee Members, appears in the Washington Times’ Energy and Environment Special (.pdf).