Creative destruction has hit the electric power industry. This process typically occurs when lower-cost, better technology becomes available. In electric power, renewables and natural gas are displacing nuclear power and coal-fired power plants. 

With respect to coal plants, many would say “Good riddance. Coal is too expensive, too dangerous and too dirty anyway.” But when it comes to nuclear power, what many don’t understand is that there is a chance that we can reinvent it to be clean, safe and reliable.

In the U.S., our knee-jerk reaction is to let industry fix it. But that only works when there is sufficient cash flow in the system to achieve the needed improvement. In our government-regulated energy market, the required cash is not being produced. 

That might be anathema to some, but we need a government-led solution.

Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide, which causes serious impacts to our climate. We will eventually need a cleaner domestic source of power to replace natural gas. Fuel cells, renewables and storage will help, but it is a huge risk to assume they will be adequate.

The truth is that it is worth trying to revamp nuclear power because we will need the energy.

We know nuclear can work. There are nearly 650 nuclear plants globally, with about 100 of those in the U.S. Yes, there are well-documented failures of nuclear power technology. If the energy produced were not potentially so critical, those failures — along with an inadequate waste remediation system — would be excellent reasons to abandon nuclear power. But we need it.

We also know nuclear power does not work well enough today. Financing is becoming impossible. The buyers and builders are literally betting their companies if they try to build a new nuclear plant in the US, as recently illustrated when Toshiba-Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy, putting the Southern Company’s plans to build two new nuclear plants in serious jeopardy.

We tried reducing the risk with taxpayer-funded loan guarantees, but they are the wrong tool. When the Three Mile Island emergency occurred in 1979, it stopped nuclear plant construction for decades. It also spawned renewed efforts to improve safety regulations. The combined effects of no construction experience and enhanced regulations on decades-old core technology are not fixable with a loan guarantee.

So how do we move forward now? A first step is to set an audacious national goal. For example, driving down the cost of nuclear power so that it is competitive with the alternatives within 15 years. 

We can afford such a goal if we recognize that we’re going to spend the money anyway at the Department of Energy National Laboratories. The DOE laboratories were established to provide the nuclear weapons capability to win wars. They succeeded. Now, they do not have a mission that is perceived as being worth their cost. But they can’t go away because, politically, they are economically important in too many states. Let’s give them a job that fits their skills and is important enough to warrant their cost. They can and should lead the technical effort to meet our nuclear power goal.

With appropriate leadership, Idaho, Livermore, Los Alamos, Sandia, Oak Ridge, Savannah River, Pacific Northwest and possibly other national laboratories could cooperate and compete to develop technologies needed to provide safe and affordable nuclear power while maintaining our nuclear deterrent.

The DOE has the brainpower and structure to lead in the development of technology needed to regain global leadership in an energy field pioneered by Americans. Regrettably, it may be more difficult to develop the political will to try than it will be to solve the technical challenges.

An original promise of nuclear power was for electricity to be “too cheap to meter.” We now know that is far from true. The new promise should be the possibility to reduce damage to the planet while providing the energy needed to meet the needs of a growing world. American leadership would be frosting on the cake.

Robert Hebner, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for Electromechanics at The University of Texas at Austin.