Let’s Talk Legislation: Nuclear Energy Leadership Act

Nuclear energy generates 55 percent of the United States’ carbon-free electricity, a figure all the more impressive when taking into account how decades-old campaigns have successfully painted the power source as unsafe and unhealthy. The dishonest attacks, when combined with insufficient government support, have all but squelched the American nuclear power industry, where the average plant is now 39 years old.  


A declining nuclear power industry is deeply antithetical to U.S. economic, environmental, and national security interests. Strong American leadership on civilian nuclear energy prevents Russia and China from setting the international agenda on these issues, creates good paying jobs and export markets for American-made nuclear technology, and paves the way for vast reductions in carbon emissions at home and abroad.


Perceptions of nuclear power are largely tied to three accidents – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima – that were far less consequential than what most of the public realizes. Two of them – Three Mile Island and Fukushima – resulted in no direct deaths, while Chernobyl was more of an indictment on communist mismanagement than nuclear power’s danger.


Three isolated mishaps have distorted a 60+ year record of safe and reliable nuclear power, but fortunately their salience is beginning to fade. When combined with technological advancements that have made nuclear power even more safe, this recent paradigm shift has led bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both houses of Congress to put forth legislation intended to reinvigorate the American nuclear power industry, with the latest being the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, (NELA). Led by Senator Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, NELA is attracting widespread support as lawmakers recognize the need for American leadership on nuclear energy.


NELA, if passed into law, would return the United States to a position of global leadership on nuclear power. It aims to accomplish this by forming public-private partnerships, where leading research laboratories and private sector innovators can collaborate to develop cutting-edge nuclear technology. The bill would also require the Department of Energy to develop a cohesive national strategy on nuclear power and make low-enriched uranium available for research and testing projects. Each of these initiatives would help to revive a stagnating industry, accelerate innovation, and better prepare the United States to meet future energy needs.


The future of nuclear energy will look very different from the traditional, massive operating plants that are mightily expensive to build, which is why NELA places significant emphasis on advanced reactor technology. Advanced small modular technology, with proper support, will make nuclear energy much more feasible in the future. This new generation of nuclear technology allows for smaller plants, lower up front construction costs, and greater safety features.  Advanced nuclear reactors can adjust their output to match grid demands and offer an attractive source of power for isolated and rural communities.


Seeing the opportunity for American leadership in this space, NELA would provide support for advanced reactor innovation projects and create a nuclear leadership program at universities to usher in a new generation of skilled workers. By investing in these technologies now, the United States will improve its long term global standing and be able to provide clean and affordable energy for the near and distant future.


The United States can look to other countries to see that investing in nuclear power pays dividends and neglecting it proves consequential. After phasing out many of its nuclear power plants and aggressively subsidizing renewables as a replacement, Germany has seen its energy prices increase and rate of decarbonization slow. Meanwhile, its neighbor to the east, France, replaced nearly all of its fossil fuel facilities with nuclear power in just fifteen years. The French now enjoy affordable electricity and emit substantially less carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour than the global average.


Nuclear power’s many advantages can no longer be ignored. The answer to reducing carbon emissions without sacrificing economic growth and grid security has been in front of us all along: it’s nuclear power. Properly investing in civilian nuclear energy will preserve American exceptionalism in the technology space, all while strengthening our environment and economy in the process. Passing the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA) will facilitate these important goals, and it’s a step that Congress must take.