Columns » Warwick Sabin

Nuclear attack

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Asa Hutchinson recently made two reasonable suggestions that seemed fairly uncontroversial. But both times, Democratic leaders responded with attacks.

The first one happened at the beginning of April, when the Republican candidate for governor said that Arkansas should examine the new health insurance program in Massachusetts that is an innovative step toward universal coverage. “We need to learn from their experience,” Hutchinson said.

This seemingly innocuous remark was immediately met with a disproportionate blast from state Democratic Party chairman Jason Willett.

“The controversial New England idea Hutchinson is flirting with is a tax hike,” Willett said in a press release. “Just because new taxes are popular in Massachusetts doesn’t mean they’ll be popular here.”

Hutchinson’s second sensible proposal came about two weeks ago, when he told a Farm Bureau forum that Arkansas could try to land another nuclear power plant as a way of meeting our energy needs during the challenging period ahead. His Democratic opponent, Mike Beebe, said in response that Hutchinson’s idea was “pretty curious.”

Beebe thinks we should focus exclusively on developing renewable fuels, like biodiesel and ethanol, that simultaneously supplement the energy supply while providing a market for our farmers. That makes perfect sense (and I’ve said as much, numerous times, in this space), except for the “exclusively” part.

If the overall goal is to decrease our dependency on foreign oil, reduce energy costs and minimize environmental degradation, new biofuels will provide immediate, short-term alternatives for running our cars and other equipment. But nuclear power satisfies those objectives in the long term when it comes to generating electricity in mass quantities, which is the other major piece of our energy consumption. Unlike the output from oil-fired or coal-fired plants, nuclear energy is home-grown, cheap and clean.

Here in Arkansas, we know the benefits of a nuclear power facility first-hand. The Arkansas Nuclear One plant in Russellville began energy production in 1974 and generates over 30 percent of the state’s electricity. It has been a model of safety and efficiency, which we were reminded of recently when Entergy received permission to raise its rates here to make up for the more expensive power created at oil and coal plants in Louisiana.

Despite the advantages of nuclear power, there has not been a nuclear plant built in the U.S. since the late 1970s, when the accident at Three Mile Island led to an understandable fear of atomic energy. But attitudes are starting to change, and even though Hutchinson has not yet announced a policy on increasing nuclear power generation beyond his mere mention of it, his timing is good.

According to an April 10 article in the New York Times, utilities around the nation are moving toward constructing new nuclear facilities, driven by projections of a 50 percent increase in electricity demand over the next 20 years and recent federal legislation offering financial incentives and a streamlined application process. Furthermore, most of the plants will end up in the South, where rural communities are eager for the jobs and significant tax revenue.

For that reason, other states are acting quickly to compete for the new facilities. On May 1, the Florida Senate voted 39-0 to approve a bill that makes it easier for utilities to get approval and financing to build nuclear power plants.

Arkansas could move in a similar direction under the leadership of a governor who includes a long-term nuclear component in a comprehensive energy strategy. That’s what Hutchinson intends to unveil during his campaign, according to his spokesman, David Kinkade.

As for Beebe, his spokesman Zac Wright elaborated on Beebe’s initial dismissive language about Hutchinson’s nuclear idea by saying, “As attorney general, Mike Beebe saved Arkansas consumers $100 million in rate increases, and as governor he’ll explore and support cheaper, safer forms of energy. There is a serious concern that must be addressed about security of nuclear power plants.”

Well, sure. The security issue practically goes without saying. We didn’t stop using commercial airlines after 9/11, and we shouldn’t dismiss a practical energy solution because it requires an investment in protection.

But if Beebe’s statement means he is willing to “explore and support” the expansion of nuclear energy production in Arkansas, he deserves credit for adopting a more rational approach to the issue, rather than simply calling it “curious.”

Now about that Massachusetts health care plan ….

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