A Bipartisan Energy Solution: Nuclear Power

Nuclear power won't solve our energy problems. But it will help. Obama should give it a kick start

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Illustration by Stephen Kroninger for Time

Obama and Nuclear Power

A few weeks ago, a group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans descended on NASCAR's Kansas City Sprint Cup race with a mission. They were members of Operation Free, a group that wants to end U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and they arrived with some pretty cool swag for the race crowd: camouflage T-shirts, key chains and drink holders, each emblazoned with a military-style crest featuring stars, wind turbines and solar panels. They also sponsored a car in the less prominent ARCA race, with wind- and solar-power decorations. "We wanted to deliver the message that we're sending [$700 million] a day overseas for oil," said Jonathan Murray, the group's director and a Marine Corps veteran. "Our message wasn't about climate change. It was about national security. It was about not being dependent on countries like Saudi Arabia and Iraq. We figured we were the most credible people to deliver that message, since we're the ones who are sent to fight in those places — and lots of people, more than 3,000 race fans who usually don't think about alternative energy, signed up to support us."

There is, in Operation Free's strategy, a lesson for the President of the United States. Barack Obama has spent the past two years doing the things he thinks are right for the country, with little regard for immediate political consequences (and even less regard for telling the public, in ways it can understand, what he has done). It's been an eat-your-peas presidency. Most people I've spoken with in the middle of the country respect him for the effort — except for the irreconcilable minority who see him as the Antichrist — but they are confused and disappointed by the results.

Now, with the prospect of a Congress tilted toward the right, Obama will have to figure out new ways to sell his wares, if he can sell them at all. It is entirely possible that the Republicans will continue to do what worked for them in the recent past: just say no to any new initiatives and try to roll back some old ones like health care and financial regulatory reform. But it's also possible that some of the smarter Republicans will understand that the public hates gridlock and screaming and is looking for purposeful cooperation. Beyond the haggles to come about tax cuts and Social Security reform (which is likely to be the headline proposal of the President's deficit-reduction commission), there is a need to regain the public's attention, to propose something big that more than 60 Senators can support, to unite the nation in a national crusade as John F. Kennedy once did with the moon program.

Yes, yes, I know that the idea of an Apollo program to make America energy-independent has been proposed so often that it's become a cliche. Inevitably, such proposals collapse into arrant tree-huggery and eat-your-peasitude. A tax on fossil fuels, often camouflaged as cap and trade, inevitably lurks in the background. And yes, yes, I'm in favor of such a tax, but the public isn't, and the Republicans certainly aren't, and Kennedy never imposed a moon tax. But there are aspects of a clean-energy program that Republicans can support. Republicans are in favor of national security, which is where the Operation Free tactics may be of great use. And Republicans like nuclear power.

When Dwight Eisenhower wanted to build an expensive, national superhighway system inspired by the autobahns he'd seen in Germany during World War II, he proposed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. If Obama wants to get a major stimulus program through the next Congress, he should propose the National Defense Nuclear Power Act. And make it big: a plan to blast past the current financing and licensing quagmires and break ground on 25 new nuclear plants between now and 2015.

Some environmentalists still see nuclear power as unclean, though their argument has been wilting over time as France and Japan, among others, have proved the safety and efficacy of such power and climate change has emerged as our most pressing environmental problem. There will be those who argue, correctly, that given the current abundance of natural gas, nuclear power is too expensive — but it won't be in the future, and the price can be dramatically reduced if the government provides direct, no-interest construction loans rather than loan guarantees. The coal companies won't like it either. After all, a robust nuclear-power program will have more impact on domestic coal than on foreign-oil consumption. But who cares? The program would be wildly stimulative: 25 new plants could produce more than 70,000 construction jobs. Nuclear energy produces about a fifth of U.S. electricity now; this could raise that figure closer to a third. And the loans will be paid back, over time, by utility customers.

The National Defense Nuclear Power Act isn't the comprehensive energy plan we need. It's classic eat-your-ice-cream governance. But it's a start. And we need to get started.