Looking back now, it's easy to see that the biggest energy policy mistake the U.S. made in the 20th century was the failure to wean the country off oil -- particularly imported oil -- as a transportation fuel.

As the recent popular uprising in Egypt and other protests across the Middle East have reminded Americans, any disruption in the system that sends roughly 2 million barrels of crude oil a day from the Middle East to the U.S. would send gasoline prices soaring. Think $5 a gallon, and that's assuming there's any gas at all in your area.

But the nation's second-biggest energy policy blunder was its failure to fully deploy nuclear technology for electric power generation in the 1980s and 1990s. No new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S. in more than 30 years. Of the 104 nuclear plants currently operating domestically, all began service before 1980.

America's shift away from nuclear power stemmed, in part, from an excessive and -- in retrospect -- imprudent overreaction to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident in 1979. It was a terrifying event, but it caused no deaths or injuries. Much of the rest of the blame for our long nuclear drought can be laid at the feet of an environmental movement that gained momentum and a stronger lobbying voice in the 1970s.

Today, with the world under pressure to reduce its emissions of climate-warming CO2 -- the U.S. is reviving its pursuit of nuclear energy, although a segment of the environmental lobby remains opposed.

Decades Behind

To say the U.S. has a lot of catching up to do in the nuclear power race doesn't come close to the reality. Consider these statistics, based on Nuclear Energy Agency data: France gets 77% of its electricity from nuclear plants; Sweden, 42%; Switzerland, 39%; South Korea, 37%; and Finland, 30%. The U.S.? A mere 20%.

Another reason the country didn't fully deploy nuclear power technology late last century related to concerns about the radioactive waste it produces. Opponents have frequently cited waste processing as a barrier to nuclear power, but France has had in place an effective nuclear reprocessing program at COGEMA La Hague and Tricastin for decades.

Nuclear power never went out of style in France, which is why that nation is decades ahead of the U.S. in energy self-sufficiency, The New York Times reported. France launched an ambitious nuclear power program decades ago because it lacks both oil and abundant coal.

If the U.S. chooses to not reprocess nuclear waste, Nevada's Yucca Mountain (or some other storage facility at an out-of-the-way site to be named later) could be pressed into use. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a proponent of green and renewable energy, has often noted the odd U.S. stance regarding nuclear power compared to our democratic cousins in France. The U.S. is too afraid to store nuclear waste in the middle of the desert at Yucca Mountain while French mayors campaign to have nuclear reactors built in their towns to create jobs.

"Scalable" Nuclear Plants

One out-of-date argument against nuclear power concerns its cost, but new, refined nuclear plants based on simple modular designs have eliminated that concern, The Economist magazine reported. Further, modularity allows plant builders to incrementally add power generation if electricity demand increases. Modularity, with its smaller initial construction costs, also shortens the break-even timetable for utilities.

A final anti-nuclear argument points to natural gas, as well as wind, solar power and other renewable energy sources, as better alternatives to coal. Provided the price of natural gas remains competitive, this abundant, cleaner fossil fuel will continue to displace dirty coal to power our electric plants. However, while the percent of U.S. electricity supplied by wind and solar power will continue to increase in the decade ahead, barring a technological breakthrough, neither will be able to supply enough power to displace dirty coal and provide a bridge to potentially cleaner, more-advanced energy technologies 20 to 30 years from now.

Nuclear power could be that bridge, but it will to take a national commitment to achieve it. The U.S. now has 104 licensed nuclear plants operating, or about one for every 2.9 million people. In contrast, France has 58 nuclear plants, or about one for every 1.1 million citizens.

Of the dozen or so new nuclear power plants currently under construction in the U.S., perhaps four to eight may be approved and come on-line between 2016 and 2018, The Economist reported. Globally, about 55 nuclear plants are under construction, including more than 20 in China.

Adding just eight new U.S. nuclear plants by 2018 is grossly insufficient, either to reduce carbon emissions or to meet the nation's growing demand for electricity. The U.K., with one-fifth the population of the U.S., has announced plans to fast-track the construction of 10 plants.

How Can the U.S. Stay Left Out?

The Obama administration, which in February 2010 announced loan guarantees for two new nuclear reactors in Georgia Power's Vogtle Nuclear Power Plant complex, supports the expansion of nuclear power, and President Obama has called for a bipartisan energy and climate bill to create incentives that will make clean energy profitable.

However, to substantially increase the number of plants -- say, by about 20 before 2020 -- a comprehensive loan guarantee program is needed. But a new federal program of that size appears to be a long shot in today's austerity-oriented Congress, where program cutbacks and belt-tightening are the priority.

Still, it seems almost implausible -- indeed, irrational -- that technology and innovation powerhouse U.S. would pioneer a revolutionary technology like nuclear power and then walk away from it when it's refined, leaving other nations to apply it to their social, economic and environmental benefit.

France, China, and the U.K., among others, recognize that nuclear power represents a win-win on climate change and self-sufficiency grounds. It's time the U.S. realized it as well, and started making up for decades of lost time -- and energy.

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Jerry

No, I tell you what American Energy Policy needs....It needs to be regulated, and treated like the national security issue that it is. It and its dollars need to be thrown off of Capital Hill like or Prez said it would be. Watching the millionth re-run of the Godfather last night, brought me to a shocking realization. Like so many politicians in Don Coreleone's pockets, so is the Organized Oil Mafia. Exxon/Mobil, Chevron, et., al own this country, sets this countries fuel policy, as well as its monetary policy. Anyone who doubs this should do their research, as I have, and see how many oily dollars these lobbyists are putting into the hands of OUR elected officials. And where is there a better definition, or example of organized crime????????

February 14 2011 at 5:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
atomicrod

The key to understand America's decision to abandon new nuclear plant construction thirty years ago is to accept the old advice of "follow the money."

As the first Atomic Age started ramping up and as many as 30 reactors were ordered in a single year, coal, oil and gas suppliers started getting very nervous about being replaced. It is often said today that nuclear energy has no impact on imported oil, but that is because nuclear energy pushed imported oil out of the electrical power market more than 30 years ago. As late as 1978, fully 17% of the US electrical power was produced by burning bunker grade oil, mostly from Venezuela, in power plants all up and down the east coast.

Coal producers also did not like the idea of a replacement being somewhat encouraged with what they viewed as "their" tax dollars. They lobbied hard to convert the Atomic Energy Commission from an agency with the effective role of enabling the safe use of nuclear energy - sort of like the FAA enables the safe use of aviation - into a disorganized energy research agency and a very effectively design barrier to entry called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Not one single application for a new nuclear plant has been taken from filing to approval under the "new" regulator and it has been operating since 1974 - 5 years BEFORE Three Mile Island.

When you look at the vocal opposition to nuclear energy and realize that many of the activists have been professionally employed fighting nuclear energy for 35-40 years, you have to ask yourself - where do they get their money?

My assertion is that it filters to them in countless ways from people who want to keep nuclear competition out of the market so that they can continue to make enormous profits by pushing coal, oil and gas to an addicted public that does not understand that they have a way out. We have something a LOT better, cleaner and more affordable if we could just ease some of the human erected barriers to entry.

Rod Adams
Publisher, Atomic Insights

February 12 2011 at 2:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
paxus2

What a stunning piece of fiction. There are no modular reactors on the market today, unless you want to count the military naval reactors with a price of greater than $10K/kWe (a price no utility will purchase at).

Unfortunately, it was not the environmental movement which stopped nuclear construction in the US, it was the nuclear project managers and the banks. Forbes wrote in 1985 "The failure of the US nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history". The conservative British business weekly The Economist which said in 2001 and 2008 “Nuclear power, once claimed to be too cheap to meter, is now too costly to matter.

Last year CitiBank evaluated new nuclear investments and found they failed all five viability tests (see tinyurl.com/citiseznonukes).

France is building more windmills than reactors now. The UK says they will only build reactors without state subsidy, which has never happened anywhere and nuclear construction companies like Areva have said wont happen in the UK without subsidy.

Anyone who studies reprocessing for more than a few minutes knows that it increases the volume of waste and does little to reduce it's toxicity and radioactivity. It is not a waste handling program, it is a fuel separating program. The French have dramatically worsened their waste problem thru reprocessing. Oh and reprocessing has been a commercial failure everywhere in the world it has been attempted.

Oh and it turns out that nuclear is even and investment mistake from trying to deal with climate change. See Amory Lovins accessible analysis at tinyurl.com/forgetnuclear

February 12 2011 at 12:42 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to paxus2's comment
atomicrod

Amory Lovins? Isn't he the guy who made the following statement on the July 16, 2008 edition of Democracy Now?

"You know, I’ve worked for major oil companies for about thirty-five years, and they understand how expensive it is to drill for oil."

In a 1976 paper, Lovins predicted that there would be no electricity being produced by nuclear power plants in the the United States after 2000. In the same paper he advocated for a doubling of coal consumption.

He was way wrong about nuclear production - we have 104 operating plants that produce approximately 806 BILLION kilowatt hours per year of emission free, subsidy free electricity at an average production cost of about 2 cents per kilowatt hour. That compares rather favorably with the 60 or 70 billion kilowatt hours per year of heavily subsidized wind. Unfortunately, Lovins was right about coal consumption - we now burn almost exactly twice as much coal each year in US electrical power production than we did in 1976 when he wrote a paper that helped get Jimmy Carter elected President. That four years of Carter were terribly beneficial to the long term prospects of the coal industry. Interestingly enough, Carter's speechwriter from that era is still out marketing coal - James Fallows just recently published a strongly positive article about Chinese coal in The Atlantic.
Rod Adams Publisher, Atomic Insights

February 12 2011 at 2:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mullermugs32

We have the largets coal deposits in the world and our technology is way behind. Thanks EPa and tree huggers.

February 11 2011 at 9:01 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
marine1942

This article is inncorrect. The biggest problem the USA did not address is drilling in our country--well, maybe the dems did address ( kill it )....

February 11 2011 at 8:49 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
ecmal

France has a population of 63,136,180 (2011) 77%= 48,510,000
The US " " " " 308,000,000 (2010) 20%= 61,600,000
Wouldn't say we have and use more.

February 11 2011 at 8:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gttdux

I wonder who fed this economist his facts. My facts as recently written in Business Week ( now BloombergBusiness) show that the vaunted French company Areva is building a big new nuclear plant ( in Finland I believe it was) and its 3 years late and 3-5Billion dollars over budget. If this is the face of the "new,refined nuclear plant" we can do without it. There is a better way -electricity from geothermal power. Believe me I would favor nuclear power over coal, oil or gas and I've spent 40+ years making my living as an engineer mostly in nuclear power construction, maintenance and refueling - but its just too complex and expensive. Geothermal has none of the drawbacks of nuclear - Spent fuel disposal, public acceptance, enourmous cost of construction. Think electric for the future -but from underground heat - not fission.

February 11 2011 at 7:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
kittyjoy

with..all..those..plutonium..pits..we..should..have..plenty..of..fuel....no..one..seems..to..care..were..there..are..stored..in..fact..instead..of..closing..a..airbase...store..spent..fuel..there..and..give..a..sereviceman..a..job

February 11 2011 at 6:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply