Want energy independence? Keep the nuclear option and limit exports

By John Licata
July 10, 2014

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Whether or not you follow the energy markets, it’s very likely you’ve heard the phrase “U.S. energy independence” at one time or another in recent years. Yet the very notion that the United States can be completely self-sufficient when it comes to supplying our domestic need for energy consumption is seriously flawed for a number of reasons ranging from population growth, pure economics, a lack of public policy and a dated permitting process vital to commercialize new energy projects. Collectively, this should have Americans questioning whether U.S. power production can be enough to completely eliminate the need for foreign energy sources.

[poll id="2"]The biggest use for energy is electricity. Using 2013 data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), in order to produce electricity in the United States, we used a total of 4,058,209 thousand megawatt-hours last year of which 39 percent was supplied from coal, 27 percent from natural gas, 19 percent came from nuclear, 7 percent from hydropower, 6 percent from other renewables, 1 percent from petroleum and less than 1 percent from other gases. So, despite the Obama administration’s efforts to help fight carbon emissions, coal still dominates in the United States. In fact, according to a recent EIA Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the allure of cheaper coal has actually fostered its greater use to offset an increase in natural gas prices.

Coal, of course, releases an enormous amount of carbon dioxide when it’s burned.

On the one hand, we’re boosting our independence by using our own coal supply to produce electricity, but on the other, the whole environmental argument may be being shoved under the rug because of it. This suggests the United States can’t be energy independent and simultaneously win the war on carbon. Something has to give. We don’t have enough clean domestic energy supply to produce electricity if we abandon domestic coal and simultaneously close perfectly good nuclear plants. Instead, we need more nuclear power since its use won’t add to carbon emission output.

Here’s the problem. The United States consumes 55 million pounds of uranium per year, yet only produces 4 million pounds. The rest comes from places such as Kazakhstan and Australia. We already import 93 percent of our enriched uranium, so in reality, our reliance on foreign enriched uranium is far greater than our dependence on foreign oil.

Another issue weighing on energy independence is a growing U.S. population. During the recent economic recession, population growth slowed, according to the U.S. census bureau. The reason often cited is that a large number of people felt financially insecure, causing them to reconsider starting families. Considering the Federal Reserve is now a bit more optimistic about U.S. job market, it’s not unreasonable to think fertility rates may once again be on the rise. Bottom line: More people means more future energy demand that the U.S. will be challenged to satisfy.

Then there’s the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) boom. The technique, which involves pumping a mixture of water and chemicals into shale deposits at high pressures, has given the United States access to vast new oil and natural gas supplies.

But instead of using more of that new-found energy booty here at home, politicians believe we should export excess supplies. The problem here is that the shale movement was supposed to be by Americans for Americans. So why not first run domestic refiners at full capacity and store the extra oil? Consider this: As of June 20, 2014, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), the nation’s piggybank for oil, contained 691 million barrels. Capacity for the SPR is 727 million barrels so isn’t talk of exporting our oil premature since we could keep gasoline prices low and further lessen our dependence on foreign oil during any crisis by tapping a full SPR right here at home?

As for natural gas, if it’s seen as the ultimate catalyst for energy independence, why would we export it when more Americans are using it to heat and power their homes? Additionally, there are those, including legendary energy man T. Boone Pickens, who believe we should tap excess natural gas to fuel the trucking sector. If we can use more natural gas here at home, we could further decrease our reliance on foreign energy. However, if the United States now uses our excess natural gas for exports or as a political weapon to weaken Russia’s position over Ukraine and Europe, we risk delaying our own goal of becoming energy independent.

Moving to renewables. I’m a big a believer in the future of geothermal, solar and wind power. However, geothermal is still being researched, the sun doesn’t always shine and wind doesn’t always blow. Costs are being driven down to make renewables more competitive with fossil fuels, but mainstream energy storage solutions are still needed to make renewables, which only account for 10 percent of our current energy mix, play a bigger role in helping the United States become more energy independent.

At the end of the day, the United States can’t be energy independent without a true national energy policy. We need to seriously rethink exporting natural gas and closing nuclear plants at a time where sustainability meets reality head on. Our newly found oil and gas supplies need to help Americans before they help the rest of the world. Therefore politicians should be pushing for innovation here at home to lower energy prices, not create an environment where our supposed energy independence creates even more dependence on foreign energy.

PHOTO: The San Onofre power plant located next to San Onofre State Park is seen in California, November 8, 2012.  REUTERS/Mike Blake 

16 comments

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100% on target… This insanity of exporting gas is just to let the oil tycoons get richer at our expense.

Don’t expect congress to stop that train. They don’t work for us.

Posted by michaelryan | Report as abusive

I agree with the author, but we are not capable of doing it. This is the USCA. Capitalism reigns supreme. We would have to socialize energy by considering it part of the infrastructure as other nations have done. We know this would never be allowed. So the article is just wishful thinking.
Welcome o the United States of Corporate America.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Yes, everything is the evil corporations fault. That’s why in the 70′s, you had eco activists doing everything they could to stop nuclear power. Now those same people are asking why we don’t have more nuclear power, because their new hysteria is the completely irrational notion that C02 should be eliminated from the atmosphere. Then if there’s more nuclear power and there’s an accident down the road, eco people’s short term memory loss will kick in once again, and they’ll be asking why the evil corporations and government, forced us to have more nuclear power.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

We should all hope that China is successful with thorium reactors. I’m betting they will be. Then we’ll have to adopt them as every other nation will and China’s vast cargo ship fleet will be run on them.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Re: electricity
Nuclear power is the best 24/7 energy source for the U.S. from an environmental point of view. We should continue adding nuclear power to our power plant portfolio. We should also continue building out wind power as the most environmentally sound power source, but one that is not 24/7 every day. Solar power continues to improve, but is very expensive and really still in the learning curve category. Obviously coal is bad for the environment and we don’t need more dirty coal power plants, but I think that we should create financial incentives for electricity providers to maintain current coal plants as backup for peak load periods. They cause no pollution in standby mode and our reserve capacity is dangerously low. Hydroelectric is great where you have it, but there are few, if any, remaining opportunities for expansion. Natural gas is clearly an improvement over coal and natural gas plants are relatively easy to build. Perhaps some coal plants can be reengineered to natural gas. However, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, even it is the most environmentally favorable fossil fuel by a large margin.

In short nuclear power is an essential component of a diversified portfolio of electricity producers, and a diversified portfolio provides the most security for our power system.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

Re natural gas exports:
@michaelryan A more correct statement would be that the current efforts to stop natural gas exports are an extensive propaganda campaign to let large industrial users of natural gas to get richer at our expense.

Natural gas exports will be a great boon to the entire economy. First of all, U.S. reserves are such that prices will not rise very far above the cost of bringing new wells on line. The cost of shipping natural gas is fairly high because of the special ships and infrastructure required. Thus U.S. will always enjoy a significant price advantage over the recipients for both consumer and industrial use. Exports will help stabilize our allies. Build out of the required infrastructure will create a huge number of U.S. jobs.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

However, our highest priority as a nation should be to convert all of our municipal utility vehicles to natural gas. This will help reduce pollution in our cities. It will provide a secure and economical way to power buses, trash trucks, and other essential vehicles. Municipal vehicles are ideal because they never travel far from their home base. Unfortunately, despite the great potential for ongoing cost savings, many cities are too strapped financially to invest in the conversions.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

Want Fukushima and Chernobyl? Keep the nuclear option…

Sun “powers” everything on Earth. Unfortunately, we are still too arrogantly infantile at the moment to understand that for our own survival we have to join efforts in learning how to harvest and store this energy, instead of fighting and killing each other.

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

“We don’t have enough clean domestic energy supply to produce electricity if we abandon domestic coal and simultaneously close perfectly good nuclear plants. ”

Two dozen reactors of the Fukushima type currently operate in the US. The Fukushima experience demonstrates that none would be able to prevent a fuel meltdown during a station blackout lasting half a day.

Read more here:
http://brainmindinstrev.blogspot.com/201 2/07/fukushima-station-black-out-delusio n.html

“Perfectly good” must be different!

Moreover, roughly 60,000 tons of highly radioactive waste, that is the spent fuel rods, are currently stored at nuclear reactors in the US. The waste has accumulated on site over the past 40 years, because the nation does not know what to do with it. Nobody has factored the cost of safe and secure transport to reprocessing facilities, reprocessing of the spent fuel assemblies, end storage of the remnants and the environmental hazards involved into the cost of the nuclear kilowatt/hour. Necessary reprocessing and end storage facilities are not even operational.

Perhaps we need to find solutions to this mounting problem and how to pay for them first, before we consider nuclear power as an option.

Posted by PeterMelzer | Report as abusive

The real answer is nuclear fusion. A Manhattan Project like effort is needed by the new world order.

Posted by elcano | Report as abusive

The ongoing robust recovery in U.S. oil and gas production has occurred largely apart from,and in spite of, actions taken by the federal government. So, remembering that, while having discussions about energy objectives is fine, we need to be careful not to let the federal government distort and over-regulate the U.S.’s energy markets so much with dysfunctional laws and rules that it weakens the U.S.’s energy condition. The recent success of the U.S. energy-wise has come largely from private initiatives in tandem with local- and state-government actions. The areas where our federal government does not operate well (for example, Obamacare and Medicare) are legion. As a general principal, concerning energy, we should not burden the federal government further beyond its abilities to manage things effectively even more. For the most part, our federal government can’t effectively manage the things it is tasked with already!

Posted by ExDemocrat | Report as abusive

The US needs to explore all the energy options with an energy policy. Solar panels should be as ubiquitous as shingles, nuclear power needs to upgrade to less dangerous designs.Biofuels from sources other than food need research. The list is long, lead times are long.
The problem is political, not opportunity

Posted by jmad34 | Report as abusive

Thorium power, specifically the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, AKA LFTR or “Lifter”, has been presented at TED.COM and will go viral. Making experts like the above look like they’ve not done their research. But the fact is, LFTR is a SAFE form of nuclear power that does not need nearly the water, so it need not be placed on sea coasts and can be installed wherever the grid needs it most.

LFTR can also be run hot enuf to replace coal fired boilers, driving CO2 emissions to zero but using the same steam turbines that are already hooked to the grid. The same Fluorine already being mined for tooth paste and water supplies can supply all the LFTR units we’d ever need to install, and we have thousands of tons of Thorium left over from rare earth mining for more.

Furthermore, the spent fuel rods already stored at Light Water Reactors could be used in LFTR units and when taken out are less hazardous than when put in. All the LFTR units we’d want to build would result in less hazardous nuclear waste than we already have. and less air pollution. and lower energy prices.

Posted by DayBrown | Report as abusive

The solar energy available was 6200 times more than the total energy consumed worldwide in 2008.Therefore we should aim our research activities to make self sufficient in all energy requirements by solar power.Think of a time when all automobiles run with its own roof top solar panels.

Posted by daivavili | Report as abusive

Energy independence based on oil or natural gas is a myth. Oil companies (some of which are international companies) sell their products to the highest bidder and it would be naive to believe that any oil company would take a monetary loss for the sake of American energy independence when they could make a greater profit selling it to China or elsewhere other than in the U.S.. Another factor that makes energy independence unlikely is the situation with our Western allies who depend on Russian for at least a quarter of their fuel. Any successful coalition to pressure Russia in the future would require that the U.S. provide Europe with a replacement to the lost Russian oil and gas. There goes our independence.

However, in 2016 GOP candidates will emphasize the need to energy independence in the U.S. and the media will neglect to ask them how this could possibly occur.

Posted by gangof4 | Report as abusive

NONSENSE. I’m fine with nuclear, as long as they can find adequate insurance. Currently there are NO INSURANCE companies that stupid. The government subsidized the industry with 250 million in insurance. About enough to cover 25 mansions around San Onofre whereas the nuclear poison would spread at least 75 miles and ruin probably 1000 times that much real estate, not counting lawsuits from people who would be poisoned, and disruption of business from closing interstates 5 and 15 freeways.

Posted by doren | Report as abusive