WASHINGTON—Against a backdrop of rising prices for oil and natural gas, members of Congress were told at a hearing on U.S. energy policy today that the federal government must reverse its longstanding neglect of nuclear power in national energy policy matters.
"With few exceptions, federal policymakers completely disregard the role of nuclear en-ergy in meeting the nation's energy needs," said Corbin A. McNeill Jr., chairman, president and chief executive officer of PECO Energy Co. "This is distressing given that nu-clear energy is our largest source of emission-free electricity, and second largest generator of electricity overall."
McNeill testified before the energy and power subcommittee of the House Commerce Committee. He said that the future of the nuclear energy industry, with 103 reactors operating in 31 states, is bright, and that restructuring of the electric utility industry is proving to be a boon for nuclear power.
"In nuclear power, we have a mature baseload technology that generates billions of kilowatts of electricity annually without emitting any of the pollutants associated with acid rain, smog, haze, ozone or global climate change … To put the role of nuclear power in perspective, if the U.S. closed all 103 nuclear plants and replaced them with fossil-fired plants, we would have to remove 90 million cars from America's highways just to maintain the air quality at its current level," McNeill said. Still, long-term challenges can be met only if industry and government work together on key issues, he said.
"The federal government has a responsibility to provide a stable regulatory environment, to avoid artificial distinctions which disadvantage nuclear energy, to uphold its commitment to manage used nuclear fuel, and to provide honest and objective information to the public to dispel unwarranted concerns about risks related to nuclear power," he said.
Robert Ebel, director of energy and national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that the federal government must do more to capitalize on nuclear power's ability to meet growing electricity demand while improving air quality. "Let me ask, does the United States have a forward-looking plan for nuclear power? No, it does not," Ebel said. The nation has two choices, he added: "Exercise the nuclear (energy) option, through government support … or accept that pollution will worsen."
The subcommittee's focus on energy policy comes amid months of concern over rising oil prices that have underscored the volatility of some energy sources. Natural gas prices, although they have not yet drawn the headlines that the oil price spike has received, through the first four months of the year are up 40 percent for electricity generation in most major markets over the year-earlier levels.
William Magwood IV, director of the U.S. Energy Department's office on nuclear energy, science and technology, voiced optimism that nuclear energy "can play an impor-tant role in meeting future U.S. energy needs" but acknowledged that, as recently as fiscal 1998, federal research and development funding for nuclear energy was eliminated.
"It fell completely down to zero in 1998. It was a disconcerting event," Magwood said.
While nuclear energy R&D funding was restored in fiscal 1999, it remains at levels below what the industry believes is warranted given the technology's contributions to society. The Nuclear Energy Institute has urged Congress to double the Energy Department's $40 million nuclear energy R&D budget request for fiscal 2001.
Dale Klein, a professor in the University of Texas' nuclear program, similarly called on Congress to substantially increase nuclear energy R&D funding, saying today, "It is difficult for the U.S. to promote nuclear policy issues globally if the U.S. is not a world leader in nuclear technology."
McNeill said U.S. electricity growth over the past 25 years has largely paralleled eco-nomic growth. "Assuring an adequate supply of electricity is vital both for our nation's economic growth and for the quality of life of all Americans. Nuclear energy can and, I believe, will continue to play an important role in providing that electricity," he said.
Nuclear energy provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs. PECO Energy owns and/or operates six nuclear reactors in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and earlier this year an-nounced a merger with Commonwealth Edison that will bring the combined company's holdings to 20 reactors. PECO Energy is a member of the Nuclear Energy Institute.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org.