Knoxville News Sentinel: Michael Collins: Alexander lauds new reactors, working on waste

Posted on March 5, 2012

Sen. Lamar Alexander characterizes the federal government's decision to grant a license for two new atomic energy reactors "not a renaissance, but a reawakening."It's still welcome news to Alexander and others who extol the benefits of nuclear energy.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission voted 4-1 in February to approve a license for the Atlanta-based Southern Company to build and operate two reactors at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Ga. The $14 billion project marks the first time in three decades a new reactor has received government approval.

Alexander, who advocates for the construction of 100 nuclear power plants over the next 20 years, sees the new reactors as a sign that Americans are waking up to the importance of nuclear energy as a clean, reliable source of electricity.

"I learned as governor that having cheap, clean, reliable electricity is at the heart of being able to provide good jobs and grow family incomes, and nuclear power is an essential part of that," he says. "The demand for electricity is going to increase, and the demand for pollution-free electricity is going to increase."

The new reactors, scheduled to begin operating in 2016 and 2017, will be the first the nation has seen in years, but they are unlikely to be the last.

Requests for 14 other reactors are pending. Also, most of the 104 reactors in the United States were built in the 1970s and 1980s, Alexander says, "so over the next 20 to 40 years, we're going to have to replace maybe a third of them."

Concerns about nuclear safety remain, however, especially after last year's disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

A dozen environmental and watchdog groups, including the Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, have sued to stop construction of the Georgia reactors. The groups want the reactors to be blocked until federal regulators approve safety changes prompted by the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

Nuclear Regulatory Chairman Gregory Jaczko, who cast the only "no" vote against granting the license, said he too wanted assurances that the reactors would be modified to meet recommendations made by the agency's task force on Fukushima Daiichi.

For his part, Alexander is convinced nuclear power is safe.

"What happened in Japan was primarily a tidal wave, which is not going to happen in Tennessee," he says. "They had an earthquake, which we could have. But the problem in Japan was a very simple one — the electricity went out, and there wasn't enough water to cover up the fuel rods."

That is unlikely to happen in the United States, Alexander says, because if one source of electricity goes out, enough backup electricity and water sources are available.

A lingering issue remains the disposal of nuclear waste. "We can't just sit here and pretend we have a place to put the waste," the senator says.

He and fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are working with Democratic colleagues, Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeff Bingaman, representing New Mexico, on a plan that would create a process for finding a permanent disposal site. They hope to have the legislation ready before the end of the year, Alexander says.