Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks from U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Nuclear Energy

Posted on April 27, 2009

Mr. President, do you remember a few years ago when our Congress got mad at France and banned French fries in the House of Representatives cafeteria? We Americans have always had a love-hate relationship with the French, which is why it was so galling last month when the Democratic Congress passed a budget with such big deficits that it makes the United States literally ineligible to join France in the European Union. Of course, we do not want to be in the European Union. We are the United States of America. But French deficits are lower than ours, and their President has been running around sounding like a Republican, lecturing our President about spending too much. Now the debate in Congress is shifting to the size of your electric and gasoline bills and to climate change. So guess who has one of the lowest electric rates in Western Europe and the second lowest carbon emissions in the entire European Union. It is France again. What is more, they are doing it with a technology we invented and have been reluctant to use: nuclear power. Thirty years ago, the contrary French became reliant on nuclear power when others would not. Today, nuclear plants provide 80 percent of their electricity. They even sell electricity to Germany, whose politicians built windmills and solar panels and promised not to build nuclear plants, which was exactly the attitude in the United States between 1979 and 2008, when not one new nuclear plant was built. Still, nuclear, which provides only 20 percent of all U.S. electricity, provides 70 percent of our pollution-free electricity. So you would think that if Democrats want to talk about energy and climate change and clean air, they would put American-made nuclear power front and center. Instead, their answer is billions in subsidies for renewable energy from the Sun, the wind, and the Earth. Well, we Republicans like renewable energy too. We proposed a new Manhattan Project, for example, like the one in World War II, to find ways to make solar power cost competitive and to improve advanced biofuels from crops that we do not eat. But today, renewable electricity from the Sun, the wind, and the Earth provides only about 1.5 percent of America's electricity. Double it and triple it, and we still do not have very much. So there is potentially a dangerous energy gap between the renewable energy we want and the reliable energy we need. To close that gap, Republicans say start with conservation and efficiency. We have so much electricity at night, for example, we could electrify half our cars and trucks by plugging them in while we sleep without building one new powerplant. On that Republicans and Democrats agree. But when it comes to producing more energy, we disagree. When Republicans say build 100 new nuclear powerplants during the next 20 years, Democrats say, well, there is no place to put the used nuclear fuel. We say, recycle the fuel -- the way France does. They say, no, we cannot. We say, how about another Manhattan Project to remove carbon from coal plant emissions? Imaginary, they say. We say, for a bridge to a clean energy future, find more natural gas and oil offshore. Farmers, homeowners, and factories must have natural gas, and the oil we will still need should be ours instead of sending billions of dollars overseas. They can't wait to put another ban on offshore drilling. We say incentives. They say mandates. We say keep prices down. Democrats say put a big, new national sales tax on electric bills and gasoline. We both want a clean energy future, but here is the real difference: Republicans want to find more American energy and use less. Democrats want to use less, and they don't want to find much more. They talk about President Kennedy sending a man to the Moon. Their energy proposals wouldn't get America halfway to the Moon. We Republicans didn't like it when Democrats passed a budget that gave the French bragging rights on deficits, so we are not about to let the French also outdo us on electric and gasoline bills, clean air, and climate change. We say find more American energy and use less -- energy that is as clean as possible, as reliable as possible, and at as low a cost as possible, and one place to start is with 100 new nuclear powerplants. Mr. President, I wish to ask unanimous consent that following my remarks an article from the Washington Post and an article from the Maryville ALCOA Daily Times be printed in the Record, which I will describe for a moment. Mr. President, the article from the Washington Post is written by James Schlesinger and Robert L. Hirsch. James Schlesinger was the first Secretary of Energy, and he established the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Robert Hirsch is a senior energy adviser today, and he managed the Federal renewable programs. Their article is entitled "Getting Real on Wind and Solar." Here is the last paragraph of the article I am including: The United States will need an array of electric power production options to meet its needs in the years ahead. Solar and wind will have their place, as will other renewables. Realistically, however, solar and wind will probably only provide a modest percentage of future U.S. power. Some serious realism in energy planning is needed, preferably from analysts who are not backing one horse or another. The other article from the Maryville Alcoa Daily Times on April 27 -- today -- is from my hometown. This is my hometown newspaper, and it is about a plant that means a lot to me. It is an ALCOA plant -- the Aluminum Company of America plant. My father worked at the south plant until he retired. I went to school on an ALCOA scholarship. During World Wars I and II, there were as many as 12,000 and 13,000 people in our east Tennessee area who worked at ALCOA with good wages. It changed the lives of three generations of families who lived there. It would have been impossible for us to have the good schools, the good jobs, the good communities we have had without the good wages paid by the Aluminum Company of America. Here is the headline: "ALCOA hopes new power contract will bring smelting restart." Ninety-five years after ALCOA Tennessee Operations fired up its first potline -- That is to make aluminum -- and seven weeks after the company shut down its last potline, the question remains: Will aluminum ingots ever roll out of the south plant again? What will make the difference for these ALCOA plants that have provided good wages and good jobs to thousands of families in Tennessee? The price of electricity. The newspaper says: The deal that ALCOA is looking for is a long-range power contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority that will allow the Tennessee smelting operations to be cost competitive when metal prices rebound. When we talk about electricity, the only cost some people talk about is driving up the cost so we will use less of it. That is the idea of a carbon tax. That is the idea of driving up the price of gasoline so people will buy less of it. But if we drive up the price of electricity in Tennessee -- if TVA raises its prices to ALCOA -- that plant will never reopen again and those hundreds or even thousands of jobs will never come back again. I was visited recently by a number of big companies in Tennessee that are concerned about the price of Tennessee Valley Authority electricity. They say they may not be able to stay there unless it gets more competitive. Residential rates are relatively low -- average to low -- but rates for companies are not low. Ironically, we are celebrating in Tennessee the arrival of two big new industries which make polysilicon, which is the material that goes into the solar panels that you put on the top of your house. Those two new plants, one of which will go in Clarksville, TN, and one of which will go in Cleveland, will each use about 120 megawatts of power when they open. From the beginning, they will be among the largest customers of the Tennessee Valley Authority for electricity. They will be using, as I said, 240 megawatts of low-cost, reliable electricity produced by coal, nuclear, and hydropower in our region. They could not rely on the one wind farm that exists in the Southeastern United States, which is in Tennessee and which only produces 5 megawatts of unreliable, expensive power -- because the wind blows much of the time at night, when TVA already has 7,000 megawatts of extra power. So the solar plants that we need for the renewable energy of the future will have to rely today on coal, nuclear, and natural gas. It is important, as we debate the so-called renewable electricity standard, as we talk about climate change and clean energy -- and I have had legislation on those subjects every congress that I have been a Senator -- to realize that cost is important if we don't want to keep jobs from going overseas and if we want people to be able to afford their electric bills. I mentioned that TVA's electric rates are average to low, but last December, 10 percent of the electricity customers of the Nashville Electric Service said they couldn't afford to pay their bills. When we come down here and start talking about proposals that are going to drive up the cost, and when we say we are going to deliberately drive up the cost, I think that is the wrong policy. We are an inventive country. We can conserve. We can double the number of nuclear powerplants we have. We can double the energy research that we are doing on solar and other renewable energies, and we can do it with the objective of having low-cost electricity. That is the way to keep our jobs. That is the way to avoid poverty. That is the way to produce the largest amount of clean electricity for the future. We need a bridge to a clean energy future. Yes, of course, that includes renewable energy, but it is only 1.5 percent of what we have today. So to talk about driving the price up and relying on a national windmill policy, for example, to drive this big productive country is unrealistic. I thank the President, and I yield the floor.