Alexander: “Nuclear Power Is the Most Reliable and Useful Source of Green Electricity Today”

Says Nuclear Is “Regaining Credentials as the Best Thing that Could Have Happened to the Environment to Provide Low-Cost, Reliable, Clean Energy”

Posted on June 14, 2010

KNOXVILLE – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, delivered a speech today at the International V.M. Goldschmidt Conference here in Knoxville.  Alexander serves on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and is the chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority Congressional Caucus.  His remarks as prepared follow:


Hanging in my office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., is a photograph taken forty years ago of President Nixon meeting with Republican congressional leaders in the White House Cabinet Room.  Sitting over at the side are two young White House aides, Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander, both of us barely thirty years old.  I was invited to the meeting because my job then was to help the president with congressional relations.  I can distinctly remember the conversation that day.

President Nixon was attempting to persuade Republican leaders that a new environmental movement was coming fast.  The members of Congress did not sense this as clearly as the president did.   The president turned out to have better antennae than the congressmen did.  Our big and complex country, like a big freight train, moves slowly when starting in a new direction, but once going, it moves rapidly and the momentum is hard to stop.  This certainly was true of the modern environmental movement during the early 1970s.      

We Americans suddenly were falling all over ourselves looking for ways to limit our impact on the planet, looking for cleaner and greener ways of living.  1970 was the year of the first Earth Day.  Congress enacted Clean Air and Clean Water laws and created the Environmental Protection Agency.  Recycling became as faddish as the hula hoop.  All of this made sense to me because growing up in East Tennessee I was raised to appreciate the beauty of our natural environment and the importance of clean water and air.  That is why I chaired the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors during the 1980s, and why I spend so much time as a United States Senator working on stronger clean air laws, on stopping mountaintop mining, and on introducing legislation to expand wilderness within the Cherokee National Forest.  For me, it has been a lifelong moral imperative to treasure natural resources at the same time we use them responsibly to make our lives more productive.

That is why in a speech in Oak Ridge in May of 2009, I called for America to build 100 new nuclear plants during the next twenty years.  Nuclear power produces 70 percent of our pollution-free, carbon-free electricity today.  It is the most useful and reliable source of green electricity today because of its tremendous energy density and the small amount of waste that it produces.  And because we are harnessing the heat and energy of the earth itself through the power of the atom, nuclear power is also natural. 

Forty years ago, nuclear energy was actually regarded as something of a savior for our environmental dilemmas because it didn’t pollute.  And this was well before we were even thinking about global warming or climate change.  It also didn’t take up a great deal of space.  You didn’t have to drown all of Glen Canyon to produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity.  Four reactors would equal a row of wind turbines, each one three times as tall as Neyland Stadium skyboxes, strung along the entire length of the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail.   One reactor would produce the same amount of electricity that can be produced by continuously foresting an area one-and-a-half times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in order to create biomass.  Producing electricity with a relatively small number of new reactors, many at the same sites where reactors are already located, would avoid the need to build thousands and thousands of miles of new transmission lines through scenic areas and suburban backyards. 

While nuclear lost its green credentials with environmentalists somewhere along the way, some are re-thinking nuclear energy because of our new environmental paradigm – global climate change.  Nuclear power produces 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity today.  President Obama has endorsed it, proposing an expansion of the loan guarantee program from $18 billion to $54 billion and making the first award to the Vogtle Plant in Georgia.  Nobel Prize-winning Secretary of Energy Steven Chu wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal about developing a generation of mini-reactors that I believe we can use to repower coal boilers, or more locally, to power the Department of Energy’s site over in Oak Ridge.  The president, his secretary of energy, and many environmentalists may be embracing nuclear because of the potential climate change benefits, but they are now also remembering the other positive benefits of nuclear power that made it an environmental savior some 40 years ago.   

The Nature Conservancy took note of nuclear power’s tremendous energy density last August when it put out a paper on “Energy Sprawl.”  The authors compared the amount of space you need to produce energy from different technologies – something no one had ever done before – and what they came up with was remarkable.  Nuclear turns out to be the gold standard.  You can produce a million megawatts of electricity a year from a nuclear reactor sitting on one square mile.  That’s enough electricity to power 90,000 homes.  They even included uranium mining and the 230 square miles surrounding Yucca Mountain in this calculation and it still comes to only one square mile per million megawatt hours.   

Coal-fired electricity needs four square miles, because you have to consider all the land required for mining and extraction.  Solar thermal, where they use the big mirrors to heat a fluid, takes six square miles.  Natural gas takes eight square miles and petroleum takes 18 square miles – once again, including all the land needed for drilling and refining and storing and sending it through pipelines.  Solar photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight directly into electricity take 15 square miles and wind is even more dilute, taking 30 square miles to produce that same amount of electricity.

Now these are some pretty big numbers.  When people say “we want to get our energy from wind,” they tend to think of a nice windmill or two on the horizon, waving gently – maybe I’ll put one in my back yard.   They don’t realize those nice, friendly windmills are now 50 stories high and have blades the length of football fields.  We see awful pictures today of birds killed by the Gulf oil spill.  But one wind farm in California killed 79 golden eagles in one year. The American Bird Conservancy says existing turbines can kill up to 275,000 birds a year.  And for all that, each turbine has the capacity to produce about one-and-a-half megawatts.  You need three thousand of these 50-story structures to equal the output of one nuclear reactor.  And even then, they only produce electricity about one-third of the time – that’s how often the wind blows.  At the only wind farm in the Southeast United States, at Buffalo Mountain, the Tennessee Valley Authority says that electricity is only being generated about 19 percent of the time.  Based on the wind industry’s own numbers, I have estimated that to provide 20 percent of our nation’s electricity we would need 25,000 square miles of turbines.  That’s an area the size of the State of West Virginia.  At some point, this stops being picturesque and begins to look like what good environmentalists and conservationists have always fought against – the invasion of precious natural landscapes by industrial civilization.  Or, we are destroying the environment in the same of saving the environment.

Most comparisons of wind power to nuclear power are grossly misleading because nuclear is so much more reliable than wind.  You’ll notice that I said I few minutes ago that a wind turbine produces one-and-one-half megawatts.   That would be true if the wind blew all of the time, but of course it blows about one-third of the time, and then only when it wants to, which is often at night when we don’t need more electricity.  And today, such large amounts of electricity can’t be stored.  So the Tennessee Valley Authority, whether it is producing wind from its 18 turbines on Buffalo Mountain or buying it from South Dakota, says wind in its portfolio has only a 10 to 15 percent dependable capacity —that is, wind power can be counted on to be there 10 to 15 percent of the time when you need it.  TVA can count on nuclear power 91 percent of the time, coal, 60 percent of the time and natural gas about 50 percent of the time.  This is why I believe it is a taxpayer rip-off for wind power to be subsidized per unit of electricity at a rate of 25 times the subsidy for all other forms of electricity combined. 

Still, people who are genuinely concerned about landscapes and pollution and global warming have argued against nuclear power’s green credentials because of the waste.  Well, the “problem of nuclear waste” has been overstated because people just don’t understand the scale or the risk.  All the high-level nuclear waste that has ever been produced in this country would fit on a football field to a height of ten feet.  That’s everything.  Compare that to the billion gallons of coal ash that slid out of the coal ash impoundment at the Kingston plant and into the Emory River a year and a half ago, just west of here.  Or try the industrial wastes that would be produced if we try to build thousands of square miles of solar collectors or 50-story windmills.  All technologies produce some kind of waste.  What’s unique about nuclear power is that there’s so little of it.

Now this waste is highly radioactive, there’s no doubt about that.  But once again, we have to keep things in perspective.  It’s perfectly acceptable to isolate radioactive waste through storage.  Three feet of water blocks all radiation.  So does a couple of inches of lead and stainless steel or a foot of concrete.  That’s why we use dry cask storage, where you can load five years’ worth of fuel rods into a single container and store them right on site.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Energy Secretary Steven Chu both say we can store spent fuel on site for 60 or 80 years before we have to worry about a permanent repository like Yucca Mountain.

And then there’s reprocessing.  Remember, we’re now the only major nuclear power nation in the world that is not reprocessing its fuel.  While we gave up reprocessing in the 1970s, the French have all their high-level waste from 30 years of producing 80 percent of their electricity stored beneath the floor of one room at their recycling center in La Hague.  That’s right; it all fits into one room.  And we don’t have to copy the French.  Just a few miles away at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory they’re working to develop advanced reprocessing technologies that go well beyond what the French are doing, to produce a waste that’s both smaller in volume and with a shorter radioactive life.  Regardless of what technology we ultimately choose, the amount of material will be astonishingly small.  And it’s because of the amazing density of nuclear technology – something we can’t even approach with any other form of energy. 

So to answer the question, “Is Nuclear Green?”  I believe the answer is “Yes.”  When you compare it with all the problems we face in discovering and mining and burning fossil fuels, when you think of the thousands of square miles of American landscape we’re going to have to cover with windmills or solar collectors to get appreciable amounts of energy – when you compare that to the one square mile taken up by a nuclear reactor and comparatively small amount of spent fuel – well, I don’t think there’s any question about which technology is going to have the least impact on the environment.   

And as a group of geophysicists and earth scientists, I know that you appreciate the fact that nothing can be more natural than harnessing the heat of the earth.  As we know, energy cannot be created; it is transformed.  Potential energy becomes kinetic energy and then the cycle starts over.  Nearly all the energy on the earth comes from the sun.  Plants and trees are stored solar energy.  The energy to sustain animal and human life comes from plants and other animals.  Fossil fuels are organic matter that was buried millions of years ago. Wind and hydropower are energy flows set in motion by the sun’s heat.  Capturing sunlight on your rooftop is the most direct way of tapping solar energy and converting it into electricity.

There is one form of energy, however, that has little to do with the sun.  Deep within the earth the temperature rises to as much as 7,000 degrees Celsius.  Much of that heat comes from the breakdown of two elements – Uranium and Thorium.  We can tap into the earth’s natural heat by using the steam that rises naturally out of the earth at geysers and fumaroles to create electricity. Dig deep enough anywhere on earth and you will encounter geothermal energy. 

When we generate power with a nuclear reactor, we just replicate this naturally occurring process that already goes on deep within the earth.  We just do it in an accelerated, controlled way and harness the heat that is produced for our own use.  We gather through mining naturally occurring uranium, purify and concentrate and maybe enrich it, and then arrange it in such a way as to greatly speed up a process that would have happened anyway – which is the fissioning of Uranium 235.  We can then use the heat to boil water and produce electricity.

But even this accelerated reaction is not entirely unique to our engineered nuclear reactors.  Two billion years ago, in the country of Gabon in uranium deposits in the Oklo region, a lucky combination of hydrology and bacteria converted some natural uranium deposits into a nuclear reactor that ran for what was probably hundreds of thousands of years.  Scientific American reported a few years ago that these natural reactors probably released, over a period of thousands of years, the same energy that the Watts Bar reactor produces in a decade – which is to say a huge amount of power.  It’s interesting to note that two billion years after those reactors shut off, the world is still here and life still evolved, even though the waste from those reactors wasn’t contained and Greenpeace wasn’t there to picket.

So nuclear power is as natural as sunlight.  It comes from the same source that heats the earth’s core.  It is a lot more efficient than converting sunlight into electricity or the process of converting sunlight into energy for plant life.  The beauty of nuclear power is that we are able to increase the efficiency of this energy source in our reactors and ultimately create electricity that produces very little waste. 

I believe nuclear is green.  I believe it is natural.  I believe it’s the best thing that could have happened to the environment to provide the low-cost, reliable, green energy that America needs for the 21st Century.