America is paying a hefty price for more than a generation of "no nukes," not the least of which is a painful attempt to wean itself from the dirtier energy sources that contribute to climate change, threaten economic growth and sometimes dangerously influence foreign policy.

As energy legislation moves from the House to the Senate this fall, lawmakers should make nuclear energy a priority, beginning with eliminating, or at least streamlining, the regulatory hurdles that have stymied construction of nuclear power plants.

The Waxman-Markey energy bill that narrowly passed the House certainly had that opportunity, but it virtually ignored nuclear energy as it charted the nation's clean-energy options. This is a serious omission. As the world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases and consumer of fossil fuels, the U.S. can't credibly attack climate change and achieve energy freedom without substantially increasing its number of operating nuclear plants.

Here's a good place to jumpstart this conversation. Late last month, Rep. Joe Pitts, R-Pa., proposed a measure to speed the building of nuclear power plants. Several years ago, Congress and federal regulators thought that they had effectively streamlined an approval process that virtually everyone associated with nuclear power agreed wasn't working. While the changes looked good on paper, nuclear plants still languished in mounds of regulatory uncertainty.

Among other things, Pitts' proposal would accelerate review of nuclear plant designs and technologies, eliminate conflicting and confusing messages from regulators to power companies, and speed up existing private-public partnerships formed to commercialize next-generation plants. Better ideas may come along, but Pitts deserves praise for prodding lawmakers to consider ways to get new plants off of drawing boards and online producing electricity.

Without a doubt, some of the nuclear industry's problems were self-inflicted, namely its history of cost overruns, dependence on government subsidies and technical issues. Remaining stuck in that mindset would mean ignoring that times have changed.

Some environmental groups, if not all, that ardently opposed nuclear plants now favor construction of new reactors as a green alternative. Nuclear power plants don't emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, unlike coal, the main alternative to produce electricity. Coal is cheap and plentiful and dirty. Even the NIMBY factor has greatly diminished, according to research polls.

Yet the U.S. has not built a new reactor in about 30 years, which is why only about 20 percent of the nation's electricity comes from the 104 nuclear power plants still in operation.

Those plants churn out about 75 percent of all clean energy produced in the U.S., far more than solar and wind technologies combined. Solar and wind are crucial parts of America's energy future, but until they can handle more of the baseload needs, we need the reliable, 24/7 electricity that nuclear reactors produce.

Nuclear energy is the most viable form of carbon-free, baseload power available. Whether Pitts' bill is the solution or the starting point for discussion, Congress needs to make nuclear a larger part of America's energy future.


—The Dallas Morning News