Thursday, November 10, 2005

Nuclear power use helps cushion natural gas price hike

APP.COM v4.0 - Nuclear power use helps cushion natural gas price hike | Asbury Park Press Online

In our blindness to the importance of abundant energy for our hugely productive economic engine, we have stumbled into an era of unnecessarily high energy costs. It is some comfort to reflect that we would be in a lot worse shape economically without nuclear power, now that the price of natural gas is going through the roof.

Contrary to the incorrect popular wisdom, the cost of producing electricity from nuclear power is less than one-third the cost of obtaining power from plants fueled with natural gas. Since half of the electricity in New Jersey is nuclear-generated — a larger percentage than in any other state in the Northeast except Vermont — we are at least somewhat better positioned than many of our fellow U.S. citizens to withstand the shock of soaring natural gas prices.

Nationally, however, natural gas has become the preferred fuel for electricity generation. It provides nearly 20 percent of the nation's electricity, as does nuclear, but going forward more than 95 percent of the additional electric-power capacity being planned or brought online uses natural gas for fuel. This increased demand, competing with the use of natural gas for home heating and industrial processes, is driving up the price of this commodity.

Everybody is aware that millions of homeowners will be shocked, even devastated, by the rise in home heating costs this winter. Fewer know of the debilitating effects of the natural gas crisis on our industrial economy.

The price of natural gas, which supplies a quarter of the energy used by Americans, has jumped sevenfold in just the last five years. The United States now has the highest natural gas prices in the world. Many Americans are unaware that many U.S. industries — chemical, aluminum, plastics, iron and steel, and food processing companies — use large amounts of gas in their processes and, as they find it more difficult to compete with countries that have cheaper supplies, are beginning to move their facilities abroad.

According to the American Chemical Council, in the last three years, 36 percent of the U.S. fertilizer industry, which depends on natural gas, has been shut down or mothballed. Last year alone, chemical companies closed 70 facilities in the United States, and have tagged at least 40 more for shutdown. Of the 120 chemical plants being built around the world with price tags of $1 billion or more, only one is in the United States. This trend can only become worse unless the public and its political leaders wake up.

For all its advantages as a relatively clean solution to our air pollution problems, natural gas cannot by itself meet the nation's needs for economic growth and environmental objectives. America needs a diverse and flexible supply of energy if we are to avoid further competitive disadvantages, with the potential for increased movement of jobs overseas and layoffs and economic stagnation here.

We should be exploiting all energy sources available to us, especially those for which we have large domestic supplies. The natural gas crisis could have been prevented, and now must be addressed on these fronts:

We must utilize for electricity production those fuels which have little other utility, and which we have in abundance. This means expanding our nuclear electricity capability, which requires immediate licensing and construction of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, and proceeding rapidly with a streamlined process for licensing new plants to provide clean, reliable, affordable electricity. We should also exploit clean coal electricity production where possible as well.

We must overcome the vociferous and destructive opposition to extracting the huge domestic supplies of natural gas in this country, especially those in less environmentally vulnerable areas than the Gulf of Mexico.

Our nation's economic strength and security require dependable access to bulk energy and the wise allocation of energy sources to the processes they suit best. Using natural gas for electricity production, for which we have other viable options, diverts a valuable resource from uses for which it is better suited and for which there is at present no good substitute.

Dr. Letty Goodman Lutzker is chief of nuclear medicine at the St. Barnabas Medical Center, Livingston.


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