A carbon-free future is a nuclear future

by Rep. Michael Burgess & Bud Albright

There was a time not that long ago when electricity was not universally available. Up until 1925, fewer than half the homes in the United States had any electricity, and even then, it was mainly supplied to the cities of America. Today, most of us cannot imagine life without it.

Indeed, prudent planning and responsible regulation ensure uninterrupted electricity on demand throughout the country. The challenge now is transitioning from simply supplying electricity to doing so more efficiently and with fewer emissions. Thankfully, American ingenuity and technological development provide a means to this through advanced nuclear technology. Developing this advanced technology, while preserving and expanding current technology, must be among America’s top national security matters.

Nuclear technology is an often overlooked strategic asset of our nation, both in electricity production and in other industries as well. Nuclear technologies provide fuel for our naval fleet, energy sources for deep space missions, a foundation for essential medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, as well as being a source for the production of hydrogen, which has great potential for use as a clean transportation fuel.

Contrary to what Hollywood might have you believe, nuclear power is one of the safest and most reliable sources of energy in the world, producing approximately 20% of our nation’s electrical power, and more than half of our nation’s carbon-free energy. Despite these benefits, America’s nuclear industry is at a crossroads: evolve into the 21st century or fade away for good. On this troubling issue, there is bipartisan agreement.

The uncertainty here has not thwarted the efforts of Russia and China from further developing their industries. Each of these rapacious states has embarked on an all-out effort to surpass the U.S. in nuclear energy production and technological development. This could have disastrous effects that result in accidents caused by poor reactor design, poor construction, poor management, and general neglect, as we saw at Chernobyl. If the U.S. falls behind in nuclear development, then state-owned and state-controlled Chinese and Russian facilities will control electricity flow to vast areas of the world.

The secretary of energy recently acknowledged that America’s top national security challenge is regaining our lost lead over China and Russia in the field of nuclear energy technology. We agree with Secretary Dan Brouillette, and with many other national security analysts, that we must reverse the precipitous decline the U.S. has seen in our competitive advantage over China and Russia. To be very clear, we are not talking about weapons development here. We are talking about the production and control of electricity through the deployment of efficient nuclear generation facilities that both Russia and China recognize as strategic economic and social control mechanisms.

Right now, the U.S. nuclear industry is constructing just two reactors on one site at Southern Company’s Vogtle Plant in Georgia. Meanwhile, Russia is busy constructing 11 new reactors, and China is constructing 12, with more on the way. Both nations are working to dominate the global market. This has serious geopolitical ramifications and represents a lost opportunity to create high-quality jobs at home.

The American nuclear industry has made wise investments in research and development. It is on the cutting edge of technological innovation with the development of small modular reactors, micro reactors, and other advanced designs. Advanced reactors are largely designed to reduce size, as well as construction time and costs. Advanced reactors will not only be safer, but will also produce less waste. It will, however, take commitment, coordination, and financing to bring this technology to full deployment.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission needs to continue efforts to modernize its licensing and permitting process, an effort for which Congress has provided special funding in recent years. Current regulations simply are not fully applicable to advanced technology. Accordingly, regulations must be adjusted to ensure rational guidance as newer, smaller reactors are commercialized.

Achieving success in all of these areas means coordinating government and private sector entities to regain American superiority in the peaceful use of the atom. Without effective coordination of these efforts, the reemergence of America as the leader in nuclear energy is in peril.

America has held its role as the world’s nuclear energy leader since the dawn of the atomic age. Today’s innovators have opened the door to tomorrow, but we must be diligent and more attendant if the U.S. is to lead the world in nuclear energy.

Michael Burgess represents Texas's 26th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Bud Albright is president and CEO of the United States Nuclear Industry Council and a former undersecretary of energy.

Published in the Washington Examiner.