Fission, Baby, Fission! - We need a hundred new nuclear plants

Posted on October 16, 2009

To cut carbon emissions, the House of Representatives has devised a cap-and-trade plan that also mandates a switch to renewable resources -- wind, sunshine, and "biomass" -- for 20 percent of our energy by 2020. Democrats on the Senate Energy Committee have proposed a similar mandate. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is threatening to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by executive order. The most certain consequence of these proposals is that they will raise prices and send jobs overseas. I have a better suggestion. Why don't we build 100 new nuclear reactors over the next 20 years, as we did between 1970 and 1990? We would lead the world in fending off global warming, vastly improve our energy security, create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and provide ourselves with clean, reliable, low-cost power. It seems an obvious solution, but it's not happening. There has been a decade of talk about a "nuclear renaissance," but only in 2007, after Congress finally overhauled the license-application process, was a New Jersey company -- NRG Energy Corp. -- able to file the first license application in 30 years with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If they're lucky and the NRC, which hasn't reviewed an application in 30 years, is able to meet its goal of getting the review done in four years, they may get a license by 2011 and a reactor up and running by 2017. The NRC now has 21 other applications pending or expected, and the Department of Energy has awarded four of them federal loan guarantees. The hope is that, once the first few reactor designs and the applications for specific construction licenses get through the NRC's review process, reactors can be built in a reasonable amount of time. It shouldn't be that hard: The Japanese are completing them in less than four years. Much of the world is moving ahead. At the U.N. Climate Change Summit last month, Chinese president Hu Jintao said his country will "vigorously" expand its nuclear production. China started looking at reactors only in 2006 but has 132 on the drawing boards already. Russia has decided to double its nuclear capacity. Japan gets 36 percent of its electricity from nuclear and has two new reactors under construction. France gets nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear and has among the cheapest electricity rates in Western Europe. The nuclear renaissance is well under way. It just hasn't reached our shores. Why is it important that we pursue nuclear, which produces 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity today? Because there simply won't be any other way to meet the energy demands of the 21st century unless we go on burning a billion tons of coal each year. Renewable solar and wind energy, the president's solution, is an intermittent source of power: It works only about a third of the time. Until we figure out how to store vast amounts of electricity, wind and solar can provide only part-time power. Renewable resources are also afflicted with what the Nature Conservancy calls "energy sprawl." That is, they take up staggering amounts of land. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has proposed using 1,000 square miles of western lands to generate 33,000 megawatts of electricity from new solar installations. You could get the same from 25 new reactors that would fit comfortably onto existing nuclear sites. To meet the president's goal of generating 20 percent of our electricity from wind, we would need to build 186,000 wind turbines, and they would cover an area the size of West Virginia. Reactors are the answer. The same people who built them in the past -- the utility companies -- would build the new ones, with ratepayers' money. What is needed for this is a limited number of government loan guarantees, to relieve the uncertainty of whether the new proposals are ever going to make it through the regulatory maze. Congress this year appropriated $18.5 billion, and Energy Secretary Steven Chu has suggested $40 billion, but we probably need closer to $100 billion. The Congressional Budget Office estimates this would cost the government very little money because the energy companies would pay back the loans. There are questions concerning safety and nuclear waste. On the former, according to Energy Secretary Chu -- a Nobel Prize-winning scientist -- the nuclear-energy industry's record is "really very, very good." And as far as waste is concerned, Chu says we can safely store spent fuel in on-site dry casks for the next few decades. In that time we can commercialize processes currently being researched at the Department of Energy to recycle the waste without producing pure, weaponizable plutonium, reduce the waste to only 3 percent of its original volume, and shorten the time that it is dangerously radioactive from a million years to only 300, at which time it will be no more radioactive than the original uranium ore was. The real problem with nuclear energy is that it is surrounded by unwarranted fear. With the conspicuous exception of Secretary Chu, Obama officials are able to wax eloquent only about blanketing the landscape with 186,000 unreliable, 50-story windmills or thousands of square miles of solar collectors. When I try to talk to them about nuclear power, they seem to get a sudden case of indigestion. Nuclear power has to be a subject we can talk about. And we'd better do a lot more than talking, soon. Otherwise, we're going to find ourselves trailing the world in providing low-cost, clean, reliable energy, and our high-paying jobs will head overseas looking for cheap, carbon-free, reliable electricity produced by foreign nuclear plants. Mr. Alexander is a Republican U.S. senator from Tennessee.