My view: Nuclear power is a fix for Utah energy woes

Published: Monday, April 21 2008 2:17 a.m. MDT

Coined the Beehive State 160 years ago, Utah connects its beloved symbol with hard-working industry and pioneer virtues of thrift and perseverance. Considering the likely impact of Gov. Jon Huntsman's energy initiative, Utahns will need every bit of those legendary traits.

Utah, like many states nationwide, faces an energy problem. Demand is rising by 2 percent a year, even as the desire to reduce CO2 emissions grows. Efforts to find solutions are complicated by burdensome regulation, legal restrictions and activist intervention.

Governments everywhere are developing a two-pronged approach in response to the dilemma. First is to mandate conservation (read: rationing). The other is to cap carbon-dioxide emissions.

These are the peanut butter and jelly of modern energy policy. In reality, it will be virtually impossible to affordably build new major power plants once CO2 is capped. So to prevent rolling blackouts and public outrage, governments are forcing energy rationing through conservation mandates.

This is Utah's formula. In 2006 Gov. Huntsman, following legislation introduced by Rep. Fred Hunsaker, R-Logan, called for a 20 percent efficiency improvement in state agency buildings by 2015. Then last May, Huntsman joined five other states in the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative to combat global warming by reducing greenhouse gases. The initiative plans to have a cap-and-trade system designed by August. Because of its heavy reliance on fossil fuels, Utah will be especially hard-hit by these regulations. More than half of Utah's coal production is for state electricity generation, and 98 percent of Utah's energy comes from fossil fuels.

Bringing nuclear energy to Utah can help. It is emissions-free, affordable, proven and safe. It already provides the U.S. with 20 percent of its electricity, but none to Utah. That could soon change. According to a recent poll, 57 percent of Utahns favor nuclear energy. They may soon receive their wish.

There is a proposal to build two 1,500-megawatt reactors in Green River that would provide the state clean and secure energy while adding some diversity, which could help lessen the blow of CO2 regulation.

The old days of anti-nuclear fearmongering may be over, but Utah has not fully recovered from 30 years of anti-nuclear propaganda. As a result, many continue to harbor misperceptions about the technology. Nuclear energy is often maligned for being too expensive. Experience tells a different story. Uranium-fueled reactors produce electricity for less than coal, gas or renewable plants. Of course, today's reactors are all paid for, and new reactors will include the construction costs. Nonetheless, given the 60- to 80-year life span of the average nuclear power plant and the low fuel costs, utilities across the country are champing at the bit to build new plants.

Then there's security. Nuclear plants were secure before Sept. 11. But now they're extraordinarily secure. If they were such easy targets, at least one of the 440-plus plants around the world would have been attacked at some point. They have not.

And finally, safety. Not one person has ever been killed as a result of a nuclear accident at a U.S. commercial nuclear power plant. And that includes Three Mile Island. No one wants Homer Simpson running a nuclear power plant. But given the layered safety mechanisms in place, he probably could.

With the push for a carbon-constrained society, the state and the country would best be served by an energy mix that includes fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable energy.

Jack Spencer is a research fellow in nuclear energy at the Heritage Foundation.

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