By Christine Todd Whitman I am addicted to electricity. So are you. And so is your business. We live in an "always on" world—air conditioners, streetlights, TVs, PCs, cell phones, and more. And with forecasts that we'll need 40% more electricity by 2030, determining how we can realistically feed our energy addiction without ruining our environment is the critical challenge of the new century.
Of course, we could buy energy-saving appliances or drive fuel-efficient cars. We can recycle cans, bottles, and newspapers. We can even plant carbon-absorbing trees. But, no matter how much we may wish they would, these acts by themselves won't satisfy our energy demands. To do that, we need a diverse energy mix that takes a practical, rather than emotional, approach.
Enter nuclear energy. Nuclear alone won't get us to where we need to be, but we won't get there without it. Despite its controversial reputation, nuclear is efficient and reliable. It's also clean, emitting no greenhouse gases or regulated air pollutants while generating electricity. And with nuclear power, we get the chance to preserve the Earth's climate while at the same time meeting our future energy needs.
The cost of failing to meet these needs will be steep. The global economy relies on world-class power grids to trade stocks, to communicate instantly, and to buy and sell around the clock. If anything points to the frustrating effect that a failed power grid can have on profits, it's the San Francisco power outage that took down Silicon Valley enterprises like Craigslist and Netflix (NFLX) in July. Although it only cost them two hours of online business, that minor power blip illustrates how a lack of electricity can render even a tech-savvy company impotent.
Nuclear power also provides a valuable tool for businesses: cost stability. Unlike other power suppliers, nuclear plants buy their uranium at set prices three years in advance. And uranium prices comprise just 26% of production costs at nuclear plants; by comparison, coal accounts for 78% of costs at coal-fired plants. So despite big increases in uranium prices over the past three years, industry production costs have remained low, at less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour (a quarter of those at gas-fired plants).
Moreover, many of the management woes that gave the early nuclear business a black eye have finally been overcome. The Tennessee Valley Authority recently demonstrated the industry's ability to manage large capital projects by successfully refurbishing the Browns Ferry 1 reactor in Alabama and returning it to commercial operation. The five-year project was completed on time and very close to budget. Also, U.S.-designed reactors have been built in about four years in Asia, and new nuclear plants (BusinessWeek, 6/26/07) on the drawing board for installation here in America will be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under a speedier process that should be far more efficient than the one in place when the 104 nuclear facilities operating today were licensed.
But this streamlined process will not compromise nuclear safety and security. The NRC holds nuclear reactors to the highest safety and security standards of any American industry. (The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that accident rates at nuclear plants are lower than in the manufacturing, real estate, or finance industries.) A two-day national security simulation in Washington, D.C., in 2002—conducted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies—concluded nuclear plants "are probably our best defended targets." And because of their advanced design and sophisticated containment structures, U.S. nuclear plants emit a negligible amount of radiation. Even if you lived next door to a nuclear power plant, you would still be exposed to less radiation each year than you would receive in just one round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles.
Here's the reality: The U.S. needs more energy, and we need to get it without further harming our environment. Everything is a trade-off. Nothing is free, and nuclear plants are not cheap to build (although costs should drop as we build more of them). But we have a choice to make: We can either continue the 30-year debate about whether we should embrace nuclear energy, or we can accept its practical advantages. Love it or not, expanding nuclear energy makes both environmental and business sense.
Views expressed in Outside Shot are solely those of contributors.
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Christine Todd Whitman, former Environmental Protection Agency chief, is co-chair of the pronuclear CASEnergy Coalition.