The Great Debate

Want energy independence? Keep the nuclear option and limit exports


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.

The shale factor in U.S. national security

The boom in domestic shale oil and gas production has increased U.S. prosperity and economic competitiveness. But the potential for this to enhance our national security remains largely unrealized.

The shale surge has boosted production by 50 percent for oil and 20 percent for gas over the last five years. Yet our political leaders are only just beginning to explore how it can help further national strategic interests.

We led a major study at the Center for a New American Security in the last year, bringing together a nonpartisan panel to examine national security implications of the unconventional energy boom. We decided that outdated idealization of “energy independence” is preventing the administration and Congress from focusing on current energy vulnerabilities and figuring out how Washington should secure our economic and security interests.