Nuclear energy: Is Obama the answer?

Jill Sigal Contributor
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“Hey, did you hear about the President? He’s for nuclear energy?” “Really? You mean the way he’s for offshore drilling?”

Nuclear energy is not the answer to America’s energy challenges but it is part of the solution. The Department of Energy deserves credit for issuing the first nuclear loan guarantee under authority granted in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT). Issuing loan guarantees for projects avoiding greenhouse gases by using innovative technologies was authorized in this Act. Recognizing the importance of nuclear power to America’s energy security, many of us worked to ensure that several provisions—loan guarantees, nuclear risk insurance (standby support) and production tax credits—were included in EPACT.

Nuclear energy provides nearly 20 percent of our nation’s electricity and over 70 percent of our country’s zero emissions electricity. Nuclear energy is a clean, safe and affordable source of energy. So why the fuss?

The American people still remember Three Mile Island. It is human nature not to forget something that could have been a disaster. But it’s time to get beyond this and, according to recent polls, most Americans now support nuclear energy.

But, there are still a few remaining obstacles. Yes, I am speaking of the waste. What do we do with the spent fuel? This is a question that Congress, several Administrations, States and industry have been asking for decades. Many, including Congress, thought they had the answer with the enactment of the Nuclear Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1987. But, as we all know, the selected deep geologic repository, Yucca Mountain, has since been taken off the table. We can point fingers and ask—“Who struck John?”—or we can accept reality and support the effort to find a new solution.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future is charged with a vital mission. Two well-respected statesmen, former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, co-chair the commission. Whether the short-term solution is to continue on-site interim storage or to consolidate storage at a central location and whether the longer-term solution is recycling and finding a new repository better suited for the disposal of the recycled waste form, these, and other questions, are being asked by the commission. Everything is on the table for the commission to consider, well, except Yucca Mountain, but let’s not go there. Right now all sides—the Obama administration, Congress and industry—should be applauded for coming together, at least for the time being, in an effort to find a solution to our nation’s nuclear waste problem and for the commitment to move nuclear energy forward and have it play an even greater role in helping America achieve energy security.

Ms. Sigal led the administration’s efforts to pass the Energy Policy Act of 2005 as the Assistant Secretary of Energy for Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs.