Viewpoint

MERRITT: Reconsider nuclear energy

January 4, 2014

MerrittRenewable or reliable?

That is the unavoidable choice when debating energy policy. For Indiana, you can have one, but not the other.

Coal and natural gas, both of which are commonly burned in Indiana to make electricity, are considered reliable “base load” fuels because they can produce electricity on demand. This is critical because electrons move at the speed of light and there is no practical way to store them. That’s why a fuel that can generate electricity 24/7, 365 days a year is indispensable.

This reliability comes at a cost. Coal—and to a much lesser degree natural gas—produces pollutants that must be removed from combustion emissions. This costly process is ultimately borne by ratepayers. That expense, and the rates we all pay for electricity, will only grow as the federal government continues its war on coal.

According to the Indiana Utility Consumer Counselor, complying with new federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations could cost Indiana’s five large investor-owned electric utilities a total of up to $11.5 billion. These new costs will directly influence what Hoosiers pay for coal-based electricity.

Wind and solar, meanwhile, are considered renewable and clean-energy sources because they burn nothing; nature provides their fuel. But they are considered “intermittent” generation sources because they produce electricity only when the wind blows or the sun shines. That’s why renewables require base-load back-up generation—and significant government subsidies and preferences—to be practical.

If that sounds like you sometimes pay twice for the same service, you’re right.

Is there another option?

Though not “renewable,” there is a fuel that is clean, reliable and safe: nuclear. Nuclear energy does not emit greenhouse gas and is always available. Once built, nuclear power plants produce more kilowatts of electricity at a lower cost than coal, wind or solar. A recent study revealed the power output of nuclear at 300 horsepower per acre versus 6.4 horsepower per acre for wind.

Despite its numerous advantages, nuclear energy has been slow to take off because building new generators is time-consuming and costly, and there are some public safety concerns.

While the costs of nuclear accidents have potential to be high and long-lasting, nuclear power is actually the safest energy source and the likelihood of accidents is comparably low.

According to the Nuclear Energy Agency, today’s plants are 1,600 times safer than the decades-old technology used at accident sites such as Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi.

More than 100 nuclear reactors are operating safely in the United States today, and several more are under construction. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear energy provides nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity and is by far the largest contributor of carbon-free electric power generation.

What’s more, scientific research is making gains every day on enhancements to nuclear generation and storage technology.

Of increasing interest is the development of smaller, modular nuclear plants that operate even more safely and can be built economically. The smaller size also makes these reactors ideal for small electric grids, and for locations that cannot support large reactors. Several states, scientists and innovators are investing in this new technology, and the potential benefits are far-reaching.

Is nuclear the answer for Indiana’s future? That remains an open question. But as the federal government makes other base-load energy options more costly, we cannot afford to exclude it from the debate.•

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Merritt, a Republican who represents Senate District 31 in Indianapolis, chairs the Senate Utility Committee. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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