“All the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.” — Ronald Reagan

The New, Clear Horizon

As a busy nation charges its cellphones, drives to its meetings, and works on essays long into the night, power plants are burning coal, trucks and trains are transporting oil, and the turbines on windmills are spinning to make those parts of daily life possible. Although we notice when an outlet in our house stops working, when the lights in our house go out, or when there is a blackout in our neighborhood, rarely do we consider what is happening the rest of the time — when those lights are on. Every day, the United States pumps millions of metric tons of greenhouse gases into the air through the machinery we use and the energy it consumes. After understanding how nuclear energy policy has changed since its creation and the directions that a nuclear future can take the nation into, it is clear that strengthening the role of nuclear power in US energy policy is a solution to the carbon crisis.

The significant development of nuclear energy began three years before the Manhattan Project with a nuclear weapon already in mind and an electricity-generating application behind it (“Outline History of Nuclear Energy”). After World War II, the first nuclear reactor to produce electricity began operating in late 1951, and by 1953 President Eisenhower proposed the first US nuclear energy legislation through his “Atoms for Peace” program which called for research in the generation of electrical power from nuclear energy for consumer use. To reflect this shift in nuclear energy focus, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, enabling the development of commercial nuclear power and assigning the Atomic Energy Commission, created by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, the responsibilities of “encouraging the use of nuclear power and regulating its safety” (“History”). During the 1970s, there was enough opposition to the AEC’s inadequate safety and protection standards that Congress replaced it with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy in the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, dividing the tasks of nuclear energy regulation and nuclear weapons and civilian materials production between the two organizations respectively. On March 28, 1979 a nuclear reactor in the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania had a partial meltdown and the plant barely escaped a catastrophe. Although there was not a largely observable result of the accident to the outside world, it “was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history,” and “Its aftermath brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations”; consequently, the NRC also heightened its regulatory oversight to prevent future nuclear disasters (“Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident”). Since 1979, nuclear disasters like Fukushima in 2011 have reminded everybody affected by the nuclear energy industry that safety and regulation are to be taken seriously, and although most nuclear power plants in the United States were built decades ago, they are inspected and upgraded frequently to ensure the highest level of safety possible.

During the dawn of the new millennium, George W. Bush saw the importance of developing domestic energy security and contributing less to climate change. By signing the Energy Policy Act of 2005, he incentivized nuclear energy production through tax credits, federal risk insurance, loan guarantees for new plants, and an extension of nuclear liability protection (“US Nuclear Power Policy”). Although the government financing and funding of new nuclear power plants did not directly result in a multitude of new plants, the intent of the government came across and many new nuclear power plants opened under ownership in the private sector. Today, the United States produces over 30% of the world’s nuclear power in 99 plants across the country with a few more under construction (“Nuclear Power in the USA”). Nuclear power accounts for about 20% of the country’s electricity generation and although government policy has facilitated growth in the nuclear energy field, falling oil prices have left proposed nuclear projects in doubt. President Obama’s “All of the Above” energy policy endorses the generation of nuclear power, primarily because of the clean energy it produces; when the issue of funding this source of clean energy, Peter Lyons, the Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for nuclear energy, says “a major problem is that the market presently has no mechanism to sensibly recognize the value of carbon-free power generation, particularly nuclear power” (Krancer).

As advances in nuclear energy technology are made, it only becomes a more convincing source of energy. Reactors that use Thorium instead of Uranium or Plutonium are in the developmental stage with successful trials. Thorium is 200 times more efficient by mass at producing energy than Uranium, which is 17.5 thousand times more efficient than coal. Nuclear power is a reliable source of energy at all hours of the day, its fuel is abundant, and its production emits zero carbon gasses. With time and investment, the cost of constructing nuclear power plants will become more competitive and the technology inside of them more efficient. Until then, taxpayers, voters, and constituents must see why nuclear energy is beneficial to our country and planet and actively support it. Nuclear energy is a puzzle piece that fits into in the US’s strategy to achieve energy security and reduce greenhouse emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.

Since the generation of nuclear power was commercialized, different policies and events have influenced the focus of its regulators to ensure that it is safe, reliable, and clean. Within the last two decades, US Energy policy has reflected the needs of the nation by incentivizing nuclear energy production. In February 2014 the Nuclear Energy Institute stated that “Absent necessary changes in policies and practices, [nuclear energy] has implications for reliability, long-term stability of electricity prices, and our ability to meet environmental goals,” and although nuclear energy is not 100% renewable, the elements necessary to provide energy for our country are plentiful in America and can provide energy far into the future (“Nuclear Power in the USA”).

Cited Sources:
“Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident.” NRC: Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 12 Dec. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
“History.” NRC: History. US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 30 Sept. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.
Krancer, Michael. “Obama Energy Official: Nuclear Plants Essential To Our Carbon Reduction Goals.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 12 Feb. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
“Nuclear Power in the USA.” Nuclear Power in the USA. World Nuclear Association, 1 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.
“Outline History of Nuclear Energy.” History of Nuclear Energy. World Nuclear Association, 1 Mar. 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.
“US Nuclear Power Policy.” US Nuclear Power Policy. World Nuclear Association, 1 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.

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