BY MARK PERRY, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR – 01/20/17 06:00 PM EST
No political leader since the first Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, under then-President Jimmy Carter, has been in a position to reshape America’s energy policy as much as former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
With Senate confirmation hearings having occurred Thursday, Perry knows that we cannot postpone dealing with the threat to our nation’s energy security any longer.
The Obama administration’s policies have favored renewable energy sources and undervalued the importance of fossil fuels, nuclear power, and energy diversity.
Instead, we need policies that are good for our economy, address concerns about the environment and provide well-paying jobs for American workers.
Nuclear power accomplishes all three of these objectives. It is clean, reliable and affordable. Notwithstanding opposition from anti-nuclear environmental groups, it is the only source of zero-carbon electricity that is available around the clock.
The U.S. fleet of nearly 100 nuclear plants supplies 19 percent of the nation’s electricity and more than 60 percent of the carbon-free power.
Importantly, the cost of nuclear-generated electricity has been relatively stable, whereas natural gas has a long history of price volatility.
The United States is now a net exporter of natural gas and its price is expected to rise as cargoes of liquefied natural gas are shipped overseas to markets in Asia and Europe.
Given the growing demand for electricity here at home, nuclear power has a critically important role to play in the years ahead.
Additional nuclear plants are needed to provide prudent insurance against possible spikes in electricity prices and shortages that could harm households and businesses, adversely affecting the U.S. economy.
Fortunately, construction is moving forward on four new nuclear plants — two each in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively. These reactors are being equipped with advanced technology that will make them even more efficient than existing power plants.
The cost of similar plants of the same design will almost certainly decline as more plants are built. New techniques in modular construction and the return of many equipment suppliers, following a hiatus in nuclear construction, make that possible.
Still, much more needs to be done at the federal and state levels to foster the growth of nuclear power.
This is where the new administration can make a difference. With Perry guiding the DOE, the agency can stimulate development of a new generation of small modular reactors and advanced nuclear plants.
Just last week, NuScale, an Oregon-based nuclear company, applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for safety certification of a small modular reactor (SMR) that it intends to develop for use in the United States and abroad.
This is the first request for certification of a new reactor design in many years and it could mark the start of the next step for advanced nuclear power.
Some 20 other nuclear companies are developing designs for SMRs and advanced reactors, such as those that are cooled with liquid metal instead of water.
Although it’s still in the design stage, the NuScale reactor already has a utility customer for the 50 megawatts of electricity it will generate. The Energy Department will need to do its part in ensuring there are no roadblocks that stand in the way of the SMR’s construction at a government site in Idaho.
Perry is a strong supporter of nuclear power. He can play an invaluable role in pushing for action at the state and regional levels to keep existing nuclear plants online.
Currently, a number of nuclear plants are at high risk of being shut down because they receive no value in state renewable electricity standards for their role in supplying carbon-free electricity and ensuring power reliability.
There needs to be a level energy playing field in order for nuclear power to compete against low-cost natural gas and subsidized wind and solar power. We can all think of energy reforms to improve policies.
Ultimately, it takes new leadership and a renewed appreciation for the importance of nuclear power. Hopefully, Perry will soon provide that leadership as the head of the DOE.
Mark J. Perry is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of economics at the Flint campus of the University of Michigan