Energizing our economy with nuclear power

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Print this page By Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA administrator and co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition

Amid our national economic slump, it makes sense to look for high-potential, high-growth industries to help Americans get back to work. In Virginia, energy development and production is an industry that’s long been a driving economic force.  At Dominion Generation’s North Anna and Surry nuclear energy facilities alone, more than 2,230 people have steadfastly produced electricity for this state while developing life-long careers.

The Dominion plants — like all 104 nuclear energy facilities spread across the country — are an enduring economic success story at a time when few are hard to find. Across the land, nearly 60,000 Americans are employed at nuclear energy facilities, often at salaries that exceed what is otherwise available in their surrounding communities.

Nuclear energy’s support of state and local economies will be my primary focus next week at Gov. Robert McDonnell’s annual energy conference here in Richmond.  In my role as co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, I have seen firsthand the benefits that communities realize — $430 million in economic activity generated by a typical nuclear energy facility each year. In Virginia, the industry’s impact is dramatic.  More than $1.25 billion of materials, services and fuel were procured in Virginia from over 1,050 companies in 2009, the most recent year’s data available.

If we are to continue to enjoy both reliable electricity production and the economic benefits of nuclear energy facilities, we have to maintain our confidence in nuclear energy safety. The events at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi reactors earlier this year, coupled with the earthquake that shook the East Coast, underscore the importance of anticipating every conceivable challenge to plant safety and adding layer upon layer of protection against them.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent watchdog regulator, has undertaken an exhaustive review of the country’s commercial reactors and concluded that they are safe. The August earthquake demonstrated that the robust construction and extra margins of safety built into nuclear energy facilities protect them against forces beyond which they were designed. 

Still, Dominion and other power companies are taking action to increase their readiness to safely manage extreme events.  And in light of these on-going efforts, as well as the plant’s demonstrated ability to withstand extreme elements, confidence and support of nuclear power among Virginians remains high.  In a new Quinnipiac University poll released this week, six in 10 Virginia voters said the earthquake did not affect their views on the safety of the North Anna nuclear facility.  Moreover, 71 percent of Virginia voters approve of using nuclear power to produce electricity, and 60 percent support the construction of new nuclear facilities in the commonwealth.

I am confident that nuclear energy will remain a vital part of our clean energy portfolio. No other energy source provides more electricity at high safety standards and without polluting our air. By 2035, America will need 24 percent more electricity than it consumes today. Virginia, the second-largest importer of electricity after California, must add new capacity at about the same rate. Electric utilities are under increasing pressure to meet that demand while retiring coal-fired plants and replacing them with cleaner energy sources. By this measure, no other source comes close to competing with nuclear energy, which provided more than 70 percent of America’s low-carbon electricity last year.

Nuclear energy also can help alleviate the country’s current economic situation. Simply put, we aren’t generating enough jobs to meet the growth of our population. In fact, in many industries, we’re losing jobs to low-cost competitors overseas.

Nuclear energy is by nature a domestic jobs machine. The 400 to 700 workers that each facility employs can be career-long jobs. With nearly 40 percent of the nuclear energy work force eligible to retire over the next five years, the industry will need to hire as many as 25,000 workers to replace those who leave. That number doesn’t include thousands of new U.S. jobs that would be created if more than a dozen new nuclear energy facilities currently in the planning stages are built. New nuclear energy facilities being built in Georgia and South Carolina already have created more than 3,000 jobs combined even before major construction on the reactors begins. 

Given our economic plight, we must do everything we can to support domestic enterprises that are growing and remain committed to producing economic opportunities for local communities. Nuclear energy is one such industry. Virginia’s leaders—Republicans and Democrats alike—recognize this fact. America is a global leader in nuclear energy technology, with U.S. reactor designs serving as the source for hundreds of reactors producing electricity globally and new, state-of-the-art designs being built here and in China.

With a constant focus on safety, we can ensure that nuclear energy continues to power America while helping meet our economic and environmental goals.

Christine Todd Whitman is the former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and former New Jersey governor. She co-chairs of the industry-funded Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a national grassroots coalition which promotes the economic and environmental benefits of nuclear power as part of a sustainable clean energy portfolio.  She is in Richmond next week to deliver the keynote address at Gov. McDonnell’s Conference on Energy.

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