Alexander: Small Nuclear Reactors “May Well Be the Smartest, Safest Next Step” in Clean Electricity

Says U.S. electricity use is set to rise 31% by 2035 and nuclear now provides 70% of our clean electricity, making small modular reactors a “promising opportunity…to safely and inexpensively create new[clean-electricity] options”

Posted on July 14, 2011

“If we don’t move ahead, arguably, the world would be deprived of our safety regime and our technology and we’ll be deprived of an industry that will make it easier and cheaper for us to create private-sector jobs through low-cost, clean electricity.”

– Lamar Alexander  

WASHINGTON – At a hearing today of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Energy and Water Subcommittee, the ranking member of the Subcommittee, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), said that the United States should move ahead in building small modular reactors, as electricity use is climbing and nuclear power provides most of the nation’s clean electricity, saying, “we have the best regime for making nuclear reactors safe in the world … I would argue that the world needs our technology and our safety standards just as much as we do.

“There are at least six other countries that are moving ahead with small modular reactor programs: Russia, China, France, South Korea, Argentina, Japan. If we don’t move ahead, arguably, the world would be deprived of our safety regime and our technology and we’ll be deprived of an industry that will make it easier and cheaper for us to create private-sector jobs through low-cost, clean electricity.”

Alexander continued: “We need to move ahead with research and development as quickly as possible. … The goal should be to answer the following three questions: First, are these designed to be safe? Second, can exporting this safe technology make the world safer—keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them? And third, is this a useful way to promote clean electricity in a country that uses nearly 25 percent of all electricity in the world?

“Well, we have the best regime for making nuclear reactors safe in the world. We certainly have the best record—no deaths ever, either at our Navy reactors or at our commercial reactors. No one was even hurt at Three Mile Island. No other form of energy has this record. So, the NRC’s review will help us to know if they are safe and if the places we are locating them are safe.”

“The Energy Information Institute reports that demand for electricity in the United States will rise by more than 31 percent by 2035. Where will that electricity come from? We know where it comes from now. Half comes from coal, 20 percent from nuclear power, 20 percent from natural gas, and a very small amount from renewable sources. Most of us believe we need clean electricity and we know where that comes from: 67 percent from nuclear power, 0.1 percent from solar, a less than 8 percent from wind. So, any new way to safely and inexpensively create new options for nuclear power, I would argue, is something we should treat seriously.” 

Today’s hearing was held to examine the safety and economics of light-water small modular reactors. Alexander said of federally funded research on these reactors that “research and development for batteries, for solar, for small modular reactors is appropriate—long-term subsidies are not. … There’s no subsidy today for the operation of a nuclear power plant. There is for new plants, up to 6,000 megawatts, but it’s limited – and it’s unlikely, I believe, that these small reactors would benefit. At the same time, the production tax credit for wind – a mature technology – continues through this year and next year at the rate of a couple of billion or $3 billion a year. So, we could take some of that money and use it for this promising new technology. I’d like to argue that there’s a difference between jumpstarting new technologies and subsidizing mature technologies.”

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