Nuclear power is not a silver-bullet solution to America's energy challenges, but it is an essential part of the puzzle that has been largely neglected until now for political reasons.
President Obama took office a year ago with high hopes for ambitious action on climate; today, it seems clear that no federal emissions limits will be enacted this year. The gridlock that grips the Senate has forced the president to consider other approaches to climate, and these loan guarantees are clearly part of that strategy.
The president's initiative should be commended both on the merits--we need the clean energy--and for the politics. As the president noted, "changing the ways we produce and use energy . . . demands of us a willingness to extend our hand across old divides, to act in good faith, to move beyond the broken politics of the past." Given the depth of the ideological divide over climate policy, the administration cannot afford to ignore the few opportunities there are to bridge the gap with bipartisan initiatives that can generate megawatts of reliable clean energy.
What about the risks of nuclear power? Historically, those dangers have been extraordinarily low, despite popular fears to the contrary, and the next generation of nuclear plants will be even safer than those built in the 1960s and '70s. The real safety issue is not the risk of accidents or attacks on nuclear plants, it is the vexing problem of waste disposal, and on that front, the administration appears unfortunately unwilling to take on the longstanding dispute over Yucca Mountain.
The greatest danger associated with these loan guarantees is not environmental but financial; the risk of default on these loans is high, given the uncertain economic and regulatory environment for these plants. If construction costs soar because of regulatory and political obstacles, the administration could yet end up with little to show for these efforts. There are no simple solutions to America's energy challenges.
Samuel Thernstrom is a resident fellow and codirector of the AEI geoengineering project at AEI.