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Energy future requires nukes

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Steam rises from cooling towers at the FPL Duane Arnold Energy Center beside the Cedar River in Iowa in this aerial image.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the FPL Duane Arnold Energy Center beside the Cedar River in Iowa in this aerial image.

Jonathan D. Woods

Sen. Bob Bennett's recent European getaway wasn't the stuff of sightseeing — not unless you count Bennett's tours of various nuclear industries in England, France and Austria. Bennett, R-Utah, says if the United States is serious about reducing carbon emissions, nuclear energy must take a larger role in the nation's electrical production.

To move away from coal-fired power generation means the United States must reprocess nuclear fuel rods, something the nation has shunned even after President Ronald Reagan lifted the executive order that banned the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel back in the 1980s.

Currently about 20 percent of the nation's electricity is produced at nuclear power plants. Despite a safe track record — and certainly less pollution output than coal-fired power production — Americans remain skeptical about the safety of this energy source. Moreover, the United States has not resolved how it will safely store spent nuclear fuel.

One thing is certain. The United States cannot generate electrical power via coal-fired plants indefinitely. Nuclear power must play a larger role in the production of electrical energy, along with other alternatives such as wind, solar, geothermal and tidal energy.

Bennett's recent trip to Europe is instructive. In France, spent fuel is reprocessed to the point that the final waste product is only about 4 percent of the volume created by nuclear power plants in the United States. Reprocessing would present different storage needs than deep underground storage facilities such as Yucca Mountain or the de facto solution, on-site storage at nuclear reactors.

Given the current economic recession, it is unclear how the construction of nuclear power plants would be financed. They are significantly more expensive to site and build than traditional coal-fired power plants. Then again, many large municipalities have given notice to power producers that they will no longer purchase electricity generated by coal-fired power plants within the next two decades. That means alternatives must be developed in advance of those dates. Federal funding or loan guarantees may be needed to stimulate this construction.

Meanwhile, local, state and federal officials must develop policies that ensure the safe operation of these facilities, strictly regulate waste streams and ensure that plutonium created in the process does not become the stuff of nuclear proliferation. It's a tall order but a necessary one, should the United States want to significantly reduce carbon emissions and keep the lights on.