Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) -- Build 100 New Nuclear Power Plants in 20 Years: For a Rebirth of Industrial America While We Figure Out Renewable Electricity

Posted on June 2, 2009

Mr. President, 1 year ago I went to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to propose a new Manhattan Project to put America on the path to clean energy independence. The project would focus on seven grand challenges: plug-in electric cars and trucks, carbon capture from coal plants, making solar power cost competitive; recycling used nuclear fuel, advanced biofuels from crops we don't eat, green buildings, and fusion. Last week I went back to Oak Ridge, spoke to a gathering, a summit of people from several States who were meeting to talk about how to attract and keep high technology jobs. I proposed that the United States should build 100 new nuclear plants during the next 20 years, while scientists and engineers figure out the grand challenges I discussed 1 year ago. This would double America's nuclear powerplants which today produce 20 percent of all of our electricity and 70 percent of our pollution-free, carbon-free electricity. This is an aggressive goal. But with Presidential leadership, it could happen. I am convinced it should happen. Conservation and nuclear power are the only real alternatives we have today to produce enough low-cost, reliable, clean electricity to clean the air, deal with climate change, and keep good jobs from going overseas. Climate change may be the inconvenient problem of the day, but nuclear power is, for many skeptics, the inconvenient answer. These nuclear skeptics cite regulatory delays and past problems with safety. They appoint commissions to slow walk decisions about recycling used nuclear fuel. They point to the shortage of welders for new plants. They complain that Japan and France are building most of the essential equipment for new nuclear plants. No surprise, since Japan is building 1 nuclear plant a year, and France is producing 80 percent of all of its electricity from nuclear powerplants. The skeptics say that carbon from coal plants contributes to climate change, which is true, and so they offer their solution: operate our big complex country, which uses 25 percent of all of the energy in the world, on electricity generated from the wind, the sun, and the Earth. One day that might be possible. But today there is a huge energy gap between the renewable electricity we wish to have and the reliable, low-cost electricity that we must have. My guess is, it will be 30 or 40 or 50 years before these new sources of electricity are cheap enough and reliable enough to supply most of the power to our electric grid. The nuclear skeptics in Congress, urged by the President, reported last month an energy and climate change bill that would require 20 percent of our electricity to be made from a very narrow definition of renewable energy. My visit to Oak Ridge was to a gathering to discuss how to attract and keep high tech jobs in the region. I tried to paint a picture for those attending about how this legislation would affect those who attended. To put things in perspective, the Tennessee Valley Authority produces an average of about 27,000 megawatts of electricity for industrial and household customers in our seven-State region. Sixty percent comes from coal, 30 percent from nuclear, 8 percent from hydroelectric power, and 1 percent from natural gas. Across the country, it is 50 percent coal, 20 percent nuclear, 20 percent natural gas, and 6 percent hydroelectric power. Nationally, only about 1 1/2 half percent of electricity comes from the Sun, the wind, and the Earth. Almost none of the TVA's power does. But the 40 percent of TVA power that comes from nuclear and hydro plants is just as clean as these narrowly defined renewables. It is free of pollution that dirties the air, and it is free of carbon that contributes to global warming. In that sense, TVA is the sixteenth cleanest utility in the country already. Here is another yardstick. The new nuclear powerplant at Watts Bar in Tennessee can produce 1,240 megawatts of electricity. The Bull Run coal plant produces about 870 megawatts; the Fort Loudoun Dam, 150 megawatts. All three operate almost all the time. This is called base load power, which is important since large amounts of power can't be stored. Some forget that solar power is only available when the Sun shines and wind power is only available when the wind blows. So how much renewable electricity is available in our region? The new solar plant our Governor Phil Bredesen has proposed in Haywood County would cover 20 acres but produce just 5 megawatts. The 18 big wind turbines atop Buffalo Mountain, a few miles away from where I made my speech, have the capacity to produce 29 megawatts but actually produce only 6 megawatts. It may be also possible to squeeze a few hundred megawatts from turbines in the Mississippi River. The Southern Company's new biomass plant in Georgia -- biomass is sort of a controlled bonfire of waste wood products -- would produce 96 megawatts. All this for a utility that needs 27,000 megawatts to operate at any given time. Each of these sources of renewable energy consumes a lot of space. For example, the big solar thermal plants in the western desert where they line up mirrors to focus the Sun's rays take more than 30 square miles -- that is more than 5 miles on a side -- to produce the same 1,000 megawatts that one can get from a single coal or single nuclear plant that sits on one square mile. Or take wind, to generate the same 1,000 megawatts with wind, one would need 270 square miles. That is 16 miles on a side. An unbroken line of wind turbines 50 stories high from Chattanooga to Bristol would give us only one-fourth of the electricity we get from one unit of the Watts Bar nuclear powerplant which fits on one square mile, and we would still need the nuclear powerplant for the times when the wind doesn't blow. There is good reason why there is only one wind farm in the entire southern United States. In our region, the wind blows less than 20 percent of the time. Much of that time is at night when TVA already has several thousand megawatts of unused electricity. Biomass will be a renewable source that we will emphasize in the South, we are told. That’s a good idea. It might reduce forest fires, and it will conserve resources. The National Forest Service told us last week that there are 2 million tons of wood scraps and dead trees in Tennessee's forests, and pulp and paper companies might produce another 2 million tons. That sounds like a lot. But let's not expect too much. We would need a forest the size of the entire 550,000-acre Great Smoky Mountain National Park to feed a 1,000-megawatt biomass plant on a sustained basis. That is a plant that would produce as much electricity as one nuclear power unit. Think of the energy it is going to take to haul this around. Georgia Southern says it will take 160 to 180 trucks a day to feed biomass into a 96-megawatt electrical plant. Remember, TVA uses at least 27,000 megawatts of electricity every day. Of course, conservation and efficiency are the places to start when looking at America's and, especially, Tennessee's electricity futures. Tennesseans use more electricity per person than residents of any other State. If we reduced our use to the national average, it would equal the electricity produced by four nuclear powerplants. We might still have to build some new powerplants, because our history and that of the country is that conservation only limits electricity growth. It usually doesn't reduce it. For example, 20 years ago we never would have guessed that computers would be using nearly 5 percent of our electricity. One can see we will need some breakthroughs, something like a new Manhattan project, before we can rely very much on renewable electricity. Of all these forms of electricity in our region, solar has the most promise. It takes up massive space, but we can use rooftops. It only works when the Sun shines, but the Sun shines during peak times of electricity use. I believe our Governor is exactly right to try to make Tennessee a hub for solar power. The first grand challenge of my proposed Manhattan project is to try to make solar power cost competitive. According to TVA, in our region, it is far from that today. Solar costs four to five times as much as the base load electricity that TVA now produces. Wind power, on the other hand, can supplement electricity on the Great Plains and perhaps offshore. But for our region, it would be a terrible mistake. In Tennessee it is a waste of money, and it destroys the environment in the name of saving the environment. The turbines are three times as tall as Neyland Stadium, which is our great big football stadium in Knoxville. In our region they only work on mountaintops where the winds are strongest, and they barely work there. I haven't mentioned the new transmission lines that will be necessary from the mountaintops through backyards in Tennessee. Someone asked Boone Pickens if he would put any of these turbines on his 68,000-acre ranch in Texas. "Hell no," he said. "They're ugly." Well, if Boone doesn't want them on his ranch because they are ugly, why would we want them on the most beautiful mountaintops in America, in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, all the way up to the White Mountains of New Hampshire? Some of the jobs that we will be growing and attracting to our region and across the country are so-called green jobs, created as scientists and engineers work on the grand challenges I propose. Please remember that nuclear power is also green. Electric cars and trucks are green. One-third of Tennessee's manufacturing jobs are auto related. Even green jobs need low-cost electricity. The two new polysilicon plants located in Cleveland and Clarksville, TN manufacture polysilicon for solar panels that go on roofs. Together these two plants use 240 megawatts of electricity, about one-fifth of the production of the new nuclear unit at Watts Bar. Don't forget about places like the Aluminum Company of America in my hometown, which has closed its smelter and won't open until it can get a 20-year, low-cost electricity contract from TVA, or the steady stream of regional manufacturers who have been to my office saying that electric rates are already too high for them to keep jobs in our region. The point is, if we care about jobs of any color, the cost of electricity matters. Which is why it is especially galling to see France, a country we usually don't like to emulate, using the technology we Americans invented to give themselves some of the lowest electric rates and lowest carbon emissions in the European Union. So why is it that nuclear energy, perhaps the most important scientific advancement of the 20th century, was invented in America and yet we stopped taking advantage of it just when we most need it? Shortly after World War II, Glenn Seaborg, the great American Nobel Prize winner, said that nuclear energy had come along just in time because we were reaching the limits of fossil fuels. He was right. The succeeding decades proved that fossil fuels are not unlimited, and their supplies could seriously compromise energy independence. And that doesn't even address global warming. Yes, I do believe global warming and climate change are problems we must address. We can't go on throwing 3 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year without running into some kind of trouble. Every session I have been in Congress, I have introduced legislation to cap carbon emissions from coal powerplants. But the way to deal with global warming and to keep our jobs is to encourage what has been called the “Nuclear Renaissance” and start making nuclear energy the backbone of a new industrial economy. Right now there are 17 proposals for 26 new reactors in licensing hearings before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That is a start. I think we need to go well beyond that. I propose that from the years 2010 to 2030 we build 100 new nuclear reactors to match the ones we are already operating. That is what we did from 1970 to 1990. During that 20-year interval, we built almost every one of the 104 reactors that now provide us with 20 percent of our electricity. If we build another 100 by 2030, we will be able to provide well over 40 percent of our electricity from nuclear power. Clean hydropower provides 6 percent of our electricity today, and with the electrification of small dams around the country, we may be able to expand that to 8 percent. With diligent conservation, and some renewable resources, we can add another perhaps 10 or 12 percent. Then, my friends, we will really be talking about a clean energy economy. Still, that is only the beginning. The second largest source of carbon emissions -- and the biggest source of our energy instability -- is the 20 million barrels of oil we consume every day to run our cars and trucks. I believe we should make half our cars and trucks plug-in within 20 years. That would reduce by one-third the oil we import from foreign sources. The Brookings Institution scholars estimate we can power those cars and trucks by plugging them in at night without building one new powerplant. Let me repeat that. If we electrify half our cars and trucks in America, we can plug them in at night without building one new powerplant because we have so much unused electricity at night. As our fleet of electric vehicles grows, the most logical option for plugging in will be supplied by clean nuclear power. Until we make great advances in storage batteries, it cannot be electricity that is sometimes there and sometimes not. We cannot have Americans going to bed every night praying for a strong wind so they can start their cars in the morning. Still, when it comes to nuclear power, a lot of people worry about safety. They say: Well, nuclear power sounds great to me, but I am afraid one of those reactors is going to blow up and cause a holocaust. Well, let's make a few things clear. As Oak Ridgers -- where I was last week -- know better than almost anyone, a reactor is not a bomb. It cannot blow up. That is impossible. There is not enough fissionable material there. What a nuclear reactor can do is overheat if it loses its cooling water, just the way your car engine can overheat and break down if it loses its antifreeze. It is called a meltdown. Nuclear scientists have warned about this from the beginning and take many precautions so it will not happen. Nuclear skeptics like to bring up Three Mile Island, so let's talk about that. What happened at Three Mile Island was basically an operator error. A valve failed, and when the automatic safety mechanism kicked in, the operators overrode it because of a mass of flashing lights and sirens on the control panel, which confused them about what was happening. Three Mile Island completely changed the nuclear industry. The Kemeny Commission, appointed by President Carter, analyzed the problems and made many recommendations, most of which were put into practice. The valve that started the whole thing had failed nine times before in other reactors and the manufacturer had tried to keep it a secret. People in the nuclear industry were not talking to each other. Now all of that has changed. Nuclear operators train for 5 years before they can take over control rooms. They spend 1 week of out of every 5 in a simulator honing their skills. The nuclear companies have special SWAT teams that can be dispatched anywhere in the country at a moment's notice in case anything goes wrong. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector practically lives on the site. What is more, every reactor in the country is on the hook for $100 million if something goes wrong at another reactor. As you can imagine, they watch each other very closely. And it shows. Our entire nuclear fleet -- 104 reactors -- is now up and running 90 percent of the time. There has only been one year-long shutdown for safety problems in the last decade. We have added the equivalent of 29 new reactors since 1990 by doing a better job of running the ones we already have. If the rest of America ran as well as the nuclear industry, we would be sitting on top of the world. "But what about Chernobyl?" someone will say? "Wasn't that a nuclear catastrophe?" Well, the Soviets did things very differently at Chernobyl than we know how to do in this country. For instance, they did not put a containment structure around the reactor, which is like not putting a roof on your house and then acting surprised when it rains and you get wet. In addition, they did something no American power reactor has ever done: They surrounded the core with carbon in the form of graphite. That is like building your reactor in the middle of a charcoal grill. When the graphite caught fire, it spewed radioactive smoke all over the world. That could never happen at an American reactor -- and it will not happen again in Russia since they have made a lot of changes over there and now they are building reactors in the same way we build reactors. So let's build 100 new nuclear reactors during the next 20 years. Our new reactors have even better safety features -- although it is never good to be overconfident. We have learned how to run the current fleet at its full potential. Most reactors are making close to $2 million a day. The attorney general of Connecticut proposed a windfall profits tax a few years ago when fossil fuel prices went through the roof. He said it was not fair that reactors could run so cheaply. So why not expand on our winnings? Why not build another generation of reactors? Well, a lot of people say it cannot be done. They say we do not manufacture anything anymore in America. We have to import all our goods from China. They say we do not have the nuclear engineers to design the new generation. They say we do not have the specialty welders to put them together on site. They say we cannot manufacture the steel vessel heads anymore, and our steel forges are not big enough. Right now, the only forge in the world big enough to make a reactor vessel is Japan Steel Works, and they are backed up. People say our new plants will spend a decade standing in line behind the 34 other reactors that are already under construction in the world, mostly in Asia. And you know something? They are right. They are right because all the things they are saying here are true. We do not have a nuclear construction industry. But then, they do not know America. America can respond to a challenge. Just as we rose to the occasion in 1943 when we began the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge and at other sites in our country, so can we rise to the occasion today to build a new generation of nuclear reactors that will provide clean, reliable power for America for the rest of this century. It is not going to be easy. What we are talking about here is essentially a rebirth of Industrial America, and it is already starting to happen. Westinghouse is opening a school for training welders who can knit together a containment structure strong enough to protect both the environment from the reactor and the reactor from outside threats. Alstom, a French company, is investing $200 million in Chattanooga, in my State, to manufacture heavy turbines for nuclear plants. We also have to train nuclear engineers to take the place of the great generation that embraced the technology in the 1960s and 1970s, only to see their dreams come to naught when the Nation turned away from nuclear power. We have to find a steel manufacturer somewhere in this country that is willing to step up and say: “Here, we can do those forgings right here in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Michigan or Illinois. We do not have to stand in line in Japan.” And we have to find investors who are willing to put up their money and say: “Yes, I have faith in America. I have faith in technology. I am ready to invest in building a cleaner, safer, more prosperous world.” With Presidential leadership, we could add more loan guarantees to accelerate construction, and could streamline the permit system to ensure that new reactors do not become ensnared in regulatory mazes or combative lawsuits. But we cannot sit on our hands because in America we do not sit around waiting for the Government to do things for us. We do things for ourselves. So the task we face here today is no less formidable than the task the Oak Ridge pioneers faced when they first arrived in Tennessee in 1943. They were trying to save the world from Japanese militarism and Nazi totalitarianism. Now we are trying to save the world from the pending disaster of dwindling energy supplies, the uncertain dangers of a warming planet, and the stagnation and decay that can only follow if we do not revive American industry. So I propose today that we work together across the aisle, with the President, in the task of bringing about a Nuclear Renaissance in helping to generate the Rebirth of Industrial America. Mr. President, I yield the floor. I suggest the absence of a quorum.