Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Can We Lead Without Nuclear?

Posted on September 22, 2009

Today President Obama told the countries of the world that the United States is ready to lead on climate change. But while he’s reassuring world leaders, he has a lot of work to do with us here in the U.S. Senate. Only yesterday in The Wall Street Journal, John Bruton, the European ambassador to the United States, chided the Senate, saying: Is the U.S. Senate really expecting all the other countries to make a serious effort on climate change at the Copenhagen Conference in the absence of a clear commitment from the United States? Asking an international Conference to sit around looking out the window for months, while one chamber of the legislature of one country deals with its other business, is simply not a realistic political position. Now I understand the ambassador’s frustration, but I hope he understands that the Senate has work to do other than deal with climate change and energy. Reforming healthcare involving one-sixth of our nation’s economy is not something the Senate is going to resolve in a hurry. On the matter of climate change, however, he’s asking a legitimate question. An even better question might be this: “How can the United States lecture other countries about climate change when we won’t take advantage of the one technology that shows the most promise of dealing with it?” I’m talking, of course, about nuclear power, which produces 19 percent of all our electricity but 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity. Coal-fired power plants produce 36 percent of the carbon dioxide; the principal greenhouse gas that most scientists believe contributes to global warming. Of the top five countries that produce carbon, indeed that produce most of the carbon the world, four—China, Russia, India and Japan—are committed to a bold program of expansion of nuclear power. Only the United States is not. We are the country that invented nuclear power, and we haven’t started a new nuclear plant in thirty years even though the 104 reactors we built during the 1970’s which produce 19 percent of all our electricity produce 70 percent of our carbon free electricity. So, if climate change is the inconvenient problem, as my fellow Tennessean Al Gore says, the other large carbon emitting nations are posing a legitimate and truly inconvenient question: If we are building dozens of carbon-free nuclear power plants in an effort to deal with climate change, why are you lecturing us when you haven’t started a new plant in 30 years and your President and everyone in his administration seems to become tongue-tied or get a stomach ache whenever someone mentions the idea of nuclear power. Everyone, that is, except the one member of the administration who knows the most about nuclear power, Dr. Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winning scientist who heads the Energy Department. We have heard many say that the Bush Administration did a poor job of listening to scientists. Well, then, perhaps it is fair for me to suggest that the Obama Administration, including the President, might do more listening to their chief scientist, Dr. Chu. In testimony before Congress, Dr. Chu has flatly said that nuclear power plants are safe. He has said that the used nuclear fuel from those plants—the nuclear waste—can be safely stored on site for 40-60 years while scientists engage in a mini Manhattan project like the one we had in World War II to find the best possible way to recycle the used fuel. Most likely that will mean that the waste’s mass is reduced by 97 percent and it will only be radioactive for 300 years instead of a million, or that it will be continuously used over and over again so there is none of the plutonium that might be used to make bombs. In an interview on National Public Radio the other day, Dr. Chu said that he would rather live down the river from a nuclear plant than other forms of producing energy. “There’s less pollution we know about that’s very dangerous. The nuclear power plants’ record in the United States is really very, very good,” he said. Our whole fleet of 104 reactors is up and running 90 percent of the time, which shows that we know how to operate nuclear power plants better and more safely than any other country. Even France doesn’t run its reactors as well and they’ve got plenty of experience – they get 80 percent of their electricity from nuclear power. But if we’ve learned to run reactors in this country, we still can’t bring ourselves to build any new ones. We’ve been stuck at about 100 reactors for twenty years now. We built those 100 reactors from 1970 to 1990 at a time when we’d never built any before yet now that we’ve got all that under our belt we can’t seem to get started on the next generation. But while we have not been able to start a new plant in 30 years, the rest of the world is taking the technology we invented and using it to create cheap, reliable, carbon-free electricity. There are 44 reactors under construction right this minute, most of them in Asia. Asia? Yes, without most Americans realizing it, the center of gravity of nuclear innovation has moved to the Far East. China has four reactors under construction and has announced plans for 130 more. Russia intends to build two reactors a year in order to replace the 30 percent of their electricity they get from natural gas so they can sell the gas to Europe at six times the price they get at home. Japan already gets 36 percent of its electricity from nuclear – almost twice what we get – and is building two more reactors. South Korea gets nearly 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear and is planning eight more reactors by 2015. They’ve even got their own design now – a 1400-megawatt Next Generation Reactor that evolved out of something they borrowed from us. India is developing thorium reactors instead of uranium and has a design for a mini-reactor that they’re going to market to developed countries. Just look down the list of the ten top carbon-emitting countries as listed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. I have already mentioned that of the top five – China, the U.S., Russia, India and Japan – we’re the only one that doesn’t have an active nuclear construction program. Of the next four – Germany, Canada, the U.K., and South Korea – only Germany claims they don’t want nuclear, but they’re buying significant amounts of nuclear electricity from France. Then there’s the number 10 carbon emitter – Iran. Now that’s an interesting case. A few months ago, President Obama said it was okay for Iran to develop a civilian nuclear power program – he didn’t have any problem with that. But if it’s alright for Iran to have a nuclear power program, why can’t we do the same thing over here? Leading on climate change doesn’t require passing a complicated cap-and-trade regime with renewable energy mandates that will impose a huge new tax on energy, stifle economic growth, and leave us with intermittent and unreliable alternative energy sources such as wind and solar. That’s the wrong direction. It’s time to lead by example and not just words. It’s time to embrace the one technology that truly has the possibility of powering a prosperous planet without ruining the environment or covering our treasured landscapes with energy sprawl. It’s time to build 100 new nuclear plants in the next 20 years. And the bonus is we’ll get plenty of so called green jobs out of it, twice as many as building the 186,000 wind turbines that it would take to create an amount of electricity equal to 100 new nuclear plants. Building 100 new reactors is going to mean rebuilding a forgotten American infrastructure. We’re going to have to build steel forges that can turn out these 600 ton reactor vessels, which is something we can’t do in this country right now. The Japanese and the Chinese and the Russians are all working on it, but we aren’t. We’re going to need scientists, we’re going to need construction workers, and we’re going to need a whole new generation of nuclear engineers and technicians to replace the last generation that’s getting ready to retire. But the prize we’re going to get for it is stable, reliable, low-cost, as well as carbon-free, electricity that will once again allow us to manufacture things in this country again instead of shipping all those jobs overseas looking for cheap energy. We can put America back to work building a whole new infrastructure based on the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century. Then when our president visits the United Nations or Copenhagen, he might be able to lead on climate change and he might not receive so many lectures from other countries who are busy building nuclear power plants because they understand that if climate change is the inconvenient problem, nuclear power is the inconvenient but best and most environmentally beneficial solution.