Alexander: UAE Selection of S. Korean Firm Over Nuclear Giants a Wake-Up Call for U.S.

Posted on May 26, 2010

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today told participants at the Tennessee Valley Corridor’s 2010 National Technology Summit that the United Arab Emirates’ selection of a South Korean nuclear-power firm over nuclear industry giants Areva and Westinghouse to build its nuclear reactors should serve as “a wake-up call for the U.S.”  

“We’re a country that is falling behind the rest of the world in science literacy,” Alexander told the conference. “Year after year, South Korean students are at the top of world performance in math and science while the United States doesn’t even rank in the top ten.  In the Program for International Student Assessment’s math test for 15-year-old students, for instance, South Korea ranks third, behind Finland and Taiwan, while the United States ranks 21st.” 

In addition to nuclear energy, Senator Alexander discussed projects going on at ARPA-E – the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy – that was created by the America COMPETES Act of 2007.  Senator Alexander led Republican efforts to pass the America COMPETES Act in the Senate. 

Alexander also advocated legislation he has introduced on clean energy – one bill, with Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) to help build 100 new nuclear power plants in the next 20 years; and another, with Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), to develop the infrastructure needed to support electric vehicles.  Alexander said he and other Republican senators “support electrifying half our cars and trucks as a way to reduce our carbon footprint even further and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  The recent tragedy of the oil spill in the Gulf has only highlighted the need to begin this effort.” 

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Senator Alexander’s remarks, as prepared, are copied below: 

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me here to speak about an issue that is very important to me.

Let me start with a little story.  About a year ago, the United Arab Emirates decided to secure its energy future.  The Emirates is a small Persian Gulf state that is awash in oil and annually rakes in about $80 billion in oil revenues.   For its own domestic energy needs, however, it opted to go with another technology – nuclear power.  Its reasoning was that the oil in the ground will eventually run out and that it would be best to conserve and prepare for that day. 

The Emirates specified they wanted to build four nuclear reactors and estimated the costs at around $40 billion.  Sure enough, the bids soon started coming in from the world’s leading nuclear vendors.  There was Areva, the company born out of France’s nuclear effort – they now get 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear and are building one of their new Evolutionary Power Reactors in Finland.  There was Westinghouse, which is building its new AP1000 reactors in Japan and China.  You may recognize the name.  They were once, along with General Electric, America’s leading electrical manufacturer.  Now they are a Japanese company, bought by Toshiba in 2006. 

While these two giants dueled, a third competitor entered the field.  South Korea only started building its own nuclear reactors in 1996.  Before that they bought from the U.S. and the Japanese.  But then they took an old design from Combustion Engineering, another American company, and fashioned the APR-1400.  After building a few for themselves they entered the world market.  Meanwhile, in the Persian Gulf oil business, the Koreans had established a reputation for getting things done on budget and on time. 

Still, it was a complete shock last October when the United Arab Emirates passed over bids from the world’s two leading companies, Areva and Westinghouse, and awarded the contract to South Korea for $20 billion – half the original estimated price.  The French and the Japanese have gone back to the drawing boards to figure out what went wrong so they will be better able to compete next time. 

How did the Koreans come so far so fast?  People will talk about “cheap labor,” “government enterprise” and “copycat technology.”  But I have another hypothesis.  Year after year, Korean students are at the top of world performance in math and science while the United States doesn’t even rank in the top ten.  In the Program for International Student Assessment’s math test for 15-year-old students, for instance, South Korea ranks third, behind Finland and Taiwan, while the United States ranks 21st.  They’re 75 points ahead of us on a scale of 1,000.   

We’ve been hearing about these statistics for decades – maybe we’ve even grown used to them - but now we’re starting to see the consequences.  We’re a country that is falling behind the rest of the world in science literacy.  In terms of energy, the rest of the world is currently going through a Nuclear Renaissance while we’re barely able to construct new reactors in our own country.  Part of our population still thinks a nuclear reactor is an atomic bomb that can go up in a mushroom cloud any minute.  A larger number believes that if we cover the Great Smoky Mountains with windmills we could generate all the electricity we need without having to build either nuclear reactors or coal plants.  I call this “Going to War in Sailboats.”  That’s the title of a book I’ve just written.  If we were to go to war tomorrow, would we put our fleet of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers in mothballs and commission a fleet of sailing vessels?  

Four years ago Senator Jeff Bingaman and I asked the National Academies: 

What are the top 10 actions, in priority order, that federal policymakers could take to enhance the science and technology enterprise so that the United States can successfully compete, prosper, and be secure in the global community of the 21st century? What strategy, with several concrete steps, could be used to implement each of those actions? 

The Academies responded quickly to that request by assembling a distinguished panel, headed by Norman R. Augustine that quickly produced a list of 20 recommendations along with strategies in the report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm.”  That report was issued three years ago.  I think its message is even more immediate today. 

In response to the Gathering Storm report, Congress enacted and the President signed the America COMPETES Act in 2007, incorporating many of the Academies’ recommendations and establishing a blueprint for maintaining America’s competitive position.  In the COMPETES Act we authorized funding to improve education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  We increased funding for scientific and technological research.  And we established ARPA-E – modeled on the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency, the one that started the Internet – but aimed this time specifically at advanced research projects on energy. 

Just two months ago I attended ARPA-E’s Inaugural Energy Innovation Summit, at which more than 50 innovators from around the country presented the prototypes of what we hope will be the next generation of energy innovation. 

Some of these ideas are truly exciting.  We saw designs for a “Metal-Air” battery that could have a 1000-mile range that would be ten times what our best car batteries can get today.  We saw plans for converting waste gas from refineries to gasoline that could save us 46 million barrels of oil each year.  We saw projects for using sunlight and electricity to convert carbon dioxide back to gasoline and a “self-digesting” biofuels plant that uses enzymes to convert cellulose plant material to a gasoline substitute.   

But there are still other areas where we must forge ahead.  What about these new small modular reactors?  Companies like Toshiba, Babcock & Wilcox, and Hyperion all have plans for reactors that are so small they can serve as “nuclear batteries.”  They are assembled at the factory and shipped to the site, where they are fitted together like Lego blocks.  They have a lower cost of entry which is important for smaller utilities.  We already have reactors like this aboard our submarines and aircraft carriers.  We’ve done this for more than 50 years.  Why not put a 125-megawatt reactor back in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where it would power the entire site and meet one-half of the Department of Energy’s carbon footprint reduction goal?  The people of East Tennessee are not afraid of nuclear power. 

With Senator James Webb of Virginia I’ve introduced a clean energy bill that calls for building 100 new nuclear reactors in the next 20 years to secure our energy future while cutting our carbon emissions and keeping energy prices low.  With Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota I’ve introduced a bill that would set up ten model communities around the country to develop the infrastructure needed to support electric cars.  40 Republican Senators support the proposition of electrifying half our cars and trucks as a way to reduce our carbon footprint even further and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  The recent tragedy of the oil spill in the Gulf has only highlighted the need to begin this effort.

Still, we have a formidable task ahead of us.  In 2008, one year after passage of the America COMPETES Act, Norman Augustine wrote an article in Science Magazine.  Since The Gathering Storm had been published, he noted, many new developments had occurred in science and education.   

  • A new research university was established in Saudi Arabia, with an opening endowment equal to what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had amassed after 142 years.
  • 200,000 Chinese students were studying abroad, mostly pursing science or engineering degrees, often under government scholarships.
  • Government investment in R&D increased by 25% - in the United Kingdom.
  • An initiative was under way to create a global nanotechnology hub – in India.
  • An additional $10 billion dollars was being devoted to K-through-12 education, with emphasis on math and science – in Brazil.
  • Another $3 billion dollars was added to the nation’s research budget – in Russia.

So it’s still a competitive world out there.  A study done far back in the 1950s determined that 85 percent of the per capita income growth in American history has occurred, not because of increasing capital stock or other measurable inputs, but because of technological innovation. 

As educators and scientists, I know you are aware of how important your work is to America’s economic future.  And I am sure you are ready to join us in this effort.

 

 

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