“The Italian navigator has just landed in the new world.”
This was the coded message received seventy-five years ago when Enrico Fermi, an Italian immigrant who’d come to America to escape fascism, created the first man-made nuclear reaction below the University of Chicago gymnasium in 1942. Shortly after this successful experiment, nuclear power was fueling Navy submarines.
In 1959, the first privately funded nuclear energy plant, Dresden Station, opened in Morris, Illinois – an area I proudly represent in Congress today. With nuclear energy, the world saw the potential to provide reliable energy, sufficient to meet demands, without carbon emissions. Fermi and his team believed their nuclear discovery would transform the world, and they were right. Today there are 440 commercial reactors in 31 countries, providing more than 11 percent of the world’s electricity.
In Illinois, nearly half of our electricity comes from 11 nuclear plants that contribute close to $9 billion annually to our economy. These plants are typically the largest employer in the community, providing thousands of good-paying jobs and millions of dollars in property taxes to support local schools, hospitals, police and fire departments. When I visit schools in Byron or talk to constituents who’ve made their careers as control room operators or engineers at LaSalle Station, I’m able to see that the incredible legacy of this technology is still thriving today.
Nationally, nuclear power supplies close to 20 percent of our electricity, behind only coal and natural gas. Nuclear power far surpasses the second largest source of carbon-free electricity, hydropower, which accounted for 6 percent of U.S. generation in 2015. When the Midwest and Northeast experienced a historically cold winter in 2014, dubbed the “polar vortex,” coal piles froze, diesel generators couldn’t operate and natural gas prices skyrocketed. The nuclear fleet, however, operated at 95 percent of its generating capacity, preventing blackouts during dangerously cold temperatures.
For these and many reasons, I’ve long supported nuclear as a key part of our nation’s diverse domestic energy supply.
Unfortunately, the fate of nuclear power isn’t guaranteed. Reactors across the United States are suffering economically because of cheap natural gas and subsidies for wind power. So-called environmental activists are pushing for early plant retirements, only to have them replaced with more polluting sources of electricity. To help secure the nuclear legacy, I’ve introduced bipartisan legislation, H.R. 1320 — the Nuclear Utilization of Keynote Energy Act — that will provide regulatory certainty for our existing fleet and pave the way for additional reforms to encourage investment in the next generation of nuclear technology.
Nuclear power is vital not just for the United States, but for our friends and allies around the world. With nearly 1.2 billion people living without electricity, it’s no surprise that there is a market for safe and efficient commercial nuclear power. Nations with existing electricity production are facing increasing demand for electricity. India, for example, is looking to nuclear as their energy demand is expected to increase 90 percent in the next 13 years. Unfortunately, if it doesn’t come from the U.S. or our allies, state-owned companies in Russia and China are all too happy to fill the void by exporting billions of dollars’ worth of commercial technology to these other countries.
We have a choice to make about the continued legacy of nuclear power. Our nation could continue to lead the world in this technology that was invented and commercialized in my home state of Illinois, or we can cede this role to Russia and China.
America should lead, not hand it over to the power-hungry Russia. We can support our nuclear power industry by ensuring we have the technology, know-how and safety expertise. We then share this technology with our allies to help them grow their economy with good jobs and reliable electricity. We can lead on electrifying homes, hospitals and schools for the 16 percent of the worlds’ population currently living without electricity.
I’m confident this can be the legacy of nuclear power with the United States at the helm. Through smart, strong American leadership, we can bring billions of people into a new world of clean, reliable energy that even our homegrown hero, Enrico Fermi, could not have predicted or ever imagined. Let’s take the lead, America.