In Defense of Nuclear Energy

It seems fortuitous that just one year after the worst nuclear disaster the world has experienced in decades, hearings to decide the future of the nuclear power plant at Indian Point, New York are scheduled to take place. The licenses of the plant’s two reactors are set to expire in 2013 and 2015. Their possible renewal has sparked new debate weighing the virtues of nuclear energy.

The fallout from Japan’s Fukushima crisis saw countries around the globe scaling back their nuclear energy programs as the reality of the dangers became vividly clear. Indian Point, resting just a stone’s throw away from New York City and its more than 8 million residents, has long been the focus of protest by activists and concern by citizens and government.

The dilemma posed by Indian Point, which supplies New York City and Westchester with 25% of their electricity needs, mirrors the energy crisis that is sure to be the definitive question of the coming century. How do we obtain the energy supply we need to grow, while minimizing risks, maximizing efficiency, and neutralizing the environmental impact?

Despite the fear of catastrophe, we cannot turn our backs on nuclear energy. Its benefits are many and its risks can be mitigated. Unlike its fossil fuel and renewable energy equivalents, the operation costs of nuclear power are comparatively cheap, its supply reliable, and, in terms of its carbon footprint, its emissions negligible.

At present, 83% of America's energy needs are met by fossil fuels and only 9% come from nuclear power. Oil, coal, and natural gas are limited resources. As economies expand worldwide and demand for these materials grows, their scarcity will steadily drive up their cost. The U.S. Energy Department has already predicted a sustained rise in the price of oil due to these factors for 2012. Exploring and maximizing the potential of nuclear energy will further diversify our energy as traditional fossil fuel resources are depleted and become prohibitively expensive.

Furthermore, the nature of state-to-state relations can be highly volatile, which can have drastic implications for an intricately linked global economy. Consider the current geopolitical and economic landscape. Iran’s recent threats to blockade the Strait of Hormuz – the strategic sea passage through which one-sixth of the world’s oil supply is shipped each day – and the subsequent spike in oil prices are proof of the precariousness of our energy present and future. Uranium, the mineral required to generate nuclear energy, can be found both at home and in a number of countries that harbor friendly relationships with the U.S., including Canada and Australia.

Investing in safe, reliable nuclear power is an attractive and sensible option for energy-seeking states that cannot afford to be held hostage by hostile countries in control of natural resources.

What nuclear energy lacks is universal accessibility. Not every state has the capacity to operate nuclear facilities well enough to withstand emergencies or to meet the necessary safety protocols. Not every country has the appropriate geography and resources to cultivate a large nuclear network.

For this reason, nuclear energy is one industry in which de-regulation could be lethally foolish. The disaster at Chernobyl was the result of incompetency. The tragedy at Fukushima occurred in part because warnings of insufficient readiness for severe tsunami hazards went unheeded. There is no room for error or chance when dealing with nuclear power.

Strict guidelines, processes, and standards must be adhered to. Both national and international mechanisms must be in place to maximize the efficiency and safety of nuclear power. Every precaution should be taken, each risk considered and addressed.

With the proper regulatory measures and diligent oversight, nuclear energy offers a compelling solution and a credible way forward.

Photo CreditJess and Peter