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Should The Government Subsidize Nuclear Power?

Our government has clearly demonstrated subpar judgments when choosing energy companies or fields to invest in, and the fallout from the Solyndra debacle has not just affected solar companies. People are watching every loan, grant, and loan guarantee that the government hands out with increased scrutiny, hoping to avoid investing billions more of taxpayer dollars in a failing company again. And for the most part, that impulse is a good one. The government should have a limited role in subsidizing energy development, if at all. The one exception to that standard is our development of nuclear energy.

The federal government has given out plenty of loans to nuclear plants in the past, but nuclear power still accounts for less than 25 percent of our electricity. We have to be more selective and change the way these decisions are made, but by no means should we write nuclear power off as a waste of an investment. Using loan guarantees instead of loans, meaning that we promise to back the debt if a nuclear power plant goes under, is a much safer way to invest. It means no money upfront, and we should attach to this promise strict conditions that include fees paid to government funds to protect taxpayers. If we can make investing in nuclear power a safe and predictable choice, we can revolutionize the energy industry.

Energy Potential

Nuclear power is not insignificant. It has the potential to power not just entire cities, but the entire American electricity grid. We all know that the in the next hundred years, our need for energy will drastically outpace the generous natural resources this planet has. In addition, our current reliance on oil and natural gas emits so much pollution into the atmosphere that we are creating perilous health conditions for the generations to follow. The cost of continuing to rely on only fossil fuels is just too high; we must have at least one reliable and prolific energy source that we can turn to. This is not about giving money to particular companies; rather, it is about subsidizing the high production costs associated with nuclear energy that are largely the result of strict federal regulation.

For example, 77 percent of France’s electricity needs are met by the production of nuclear power in fifty-eight nuclear power plants across the country. Production is so high that France has even become an energy exporter to other countries. They made a concerted effort to develop nuclear energy because they suffer a lack of natural energy resources, and in that way one could argue that we have been spoiled by our stores of natural gas and oil. We have 104 nuclear power plants, but nuclear power makes up far less of the electricity grid because of the inefficient way in which we use them. Nuclear power is currently just 19.4 percent of America’s electricity. One nuclear unit could provide electricity to 1.4 million people, cutting carbon pollution by 16 million tons.

Federal subsidies or loan guarantees would help nuclear power plants overcome a couple of the most pressing obstacles: developing new storage or reprocessing facilities for nuclear waste, and adhering to the strict government regulations during production. These are unique and costly barriers to overcome, and they are largely the part of government regulation. Additionally, unlike solar and wind plants which have sucked up billions in federal funding, nuclear plants are relatively inexpensive to maintain. Federal investment could drop off drastically once we got new plants up and in the production stage.

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Safety Risks

One of the most integral and logical reasons that the federal government should continue to be involved in the funding and supervision of nuclear power is the huge safety risk that is posed to surrounding citizens should something go wrong. Since the nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima, the federal government has pushed through even more strict safety regulations. The cost of developing and generating nuclear power is already sky-high because it is still in the development stages, and these additional government regulations are only driving that price up. We cannot afford to sacrifice an energy source that could easily power the entire state of New York with a few nuclear units. Large nuclear plants could power much of the country once production began.

Jobs Potential

Unemployment numbers in America are still troublingly high, hovering near 8 percent. Our politicians have all made lofty promises to drastically drop the unemployment rates and get Americans working again. Nuclear power is an industry waiting to take off: one that could create hundreds of thousands of permanent new jobs. Temporary jobs would certainly be created by the massive demand for contractors as these plants were built, and permanent jobs would abound. Scientists for research, administrators, maintenance staff, laborers involved with the physical work at the plant— thousands upon thousands of Americans would have new jobs. Nuclear is an investment not in a company or even an energy source, but in our future. These plants would exist to meet all or most of our energy needs going forward, and they would represent a stable and permanent sector of the job market.

Protecting The Public

Loan guarantee programs are how the government usually funds projects like nuclear development, and that is a much more financially secure source of funding than what the public normally hears about. Rather than giving out grants or loans to nuclear plants in the same way that we gave money out to solar and wind companies, loan guarantees protect the taxpayer. They do not cost any taxpayer money upfront, and our investment is protected if the company goes bankrupt: companies pay high fees in order to hedge against the risk that they will default on the loan.

If we can plot a course of action that allows investment in nuclear power without draining taxpayers for money that they will likely never see again, nuclear energy could be one of the best decisions our country has ever made. Energy independence, jobs, and a smaller carbon footprint are all just a few loan guarantees away.

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