WHILE global warming is positioned to be a hot issue in the 2008 presidential election, the candidates must face directly the one large-scale means of providing carbon-free electric power: nuclear energy. Candidates in both parties should swallow hard and confess that the United States must take steps that they find difficult. For Democrats, that means acknowledging that we need more nuclear power and that we must do something with the waste. For Republicans, it's even tougher - they must admit that we should become more like France.
Whether or not Democrats like it, the nuclear industry, which was once in decline, is on the brink of substantial growth for the first time in 30 years. Demand is one reason - our growing population, combined with the rise in thirsty electric products, will mean an estimated 45 percent increase in demand for power by 2030. That new iPhone, the always-on lights on the television, the computer monitor displaying a screen-saver - all that takes power, and more such products are on the way. And it's not just consumer demand - one
We'll need massive new generating capacity to meet that demand. And while we must do better at conservation and invest in renewable energies, nuclear power is the only mature, large scale source of power that is essentially carbon-free. In 2005, nuclear power produced 19 percent of all US electricity; solar made up one-30th of 1 percent. If we don't build substantial new nuclear capacity, the alternative isn't going to be wind farms and solar arrays - it's going to be fossil-fueled, carbon-spewing plants.
Those are the truths facing Democrats, however inconvenient.
The real question facing our leaders is how to shape the future of nuclear power to make it as sustainable as possible, both environmentally and economically. And even if it makes Republicans choke on their freedom fries, the answers are there in France, which generates 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and makes enough even to export it to other countries.
First, we should follow the French model of picking one or two plant designs and sticking with them. One reason that American nuclear construction stalled was inefficiency: Every new plant had its own unique design, leading to a patchwork of reactors across the country. This drove up costs and made operations more difficult, because parts were not interchangeable and personnel had to be retrained for each new plant.
By contrast, France used two reactor designs everywhere. Thankfully, the United States has learned that lesson, and it now seems that standardized reactor design will be the way of the future.
But on the issue of nuclear waste, the United States is stuck in the past. The Department of Energy has spent 25 years working on a repository at Yucca Mountain, but it is bogged down in a political morass. Senator Hillary Clinton recently confirmed her opposition to Yucca, noting that "it's past time to start exploring alternatives." The other Democratic candidates all agree, while Republicans are largely silent.
So what would an alternative look like? Here again, we should follow France. Instead of storing its waste at each nuclear plant (as in the United States) or burying it in containers underground (as we would do if Yucca opens), the French take their waste to a massive plant in Normandy, where spent fuel is recycled. They can reuse 80 percent of the material; the remaining 20 percent is "vitrified" - combined with molten glass and solidified - to immobilize the radioactive material. It can then go into long-term storage with much less risk of leaching into the groundwater.
Recycling does create separated plutonium, which theoretically could be used in a nuclear weapon. But the likelihood of it falling into the wrong hands is infinitesimal - the United States has well-proven systems to safeguard nuclear material. Moreover, the plutonium that comes out of this reprocessing system would be difficult for terrorists to handle without advanced training and laboratory equipment.
Recycling waste is expensive - a plant would cost $15 billion. But not recycling is even more costly. By law, the US government was supposed to begin taking spent fuel from commercial reactors in 1998, but it has defaulted and is now running up a tab that could total $56 billion. What's more, even if Yucca Mountain were to open its doors tomorrow, it would soon be at capacity with the waste that already has accumulated.
Many who remember the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 still object to nuclear power on fears about safety. They are unfounded. Dozens of studies on the impact of TMI have found that the worst nuclear accident in American history resulted in no injuries or deaths. Moreover, plant design and operations have improved radically in the decades since TMI, and the nuclear industry is now one of the safest in our country, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Full disclosure: Our organization, Third Way, receives some donations - less than 1 percent of our budget - from the nuclear industry.)
Indeed, much greater danger is looming. Humanity faces an existential threat from global warming, and America faces an array of economic and security threats relating to energy. Are Democrats ready to put aside outmoded fears and embrace a proven, carbon-free technology to help us meet those threats? Are Republicans ready to ask the French, who have 40 years of experience, for their help and expertise? As the United States enters its nuclear renaissance, real leadership is required from both sides.
John Dyson, a board member of the group Third Way, is a former chairman of the New York State Power Authority. Matt Bennett is vice president for public affairs of Third Way.