Speeches & Floor Statements

A Blueprint for 100 New Nuclear Plants in 20 years

Posted on July 13, 2009

Our country is at a critical point in its economic and energy history. Today’s recession is the most severe in decades. Unemployment nears ten percent. We have too much national debt. A gathering storm threatens the technological edge that has given Americans — only about 5% of the world’s people — a remarkable standard of living that comes from producing 25% of the world’s wealth. The sting remains from last year’s oil prices. We rely too much on other countries for our energy. There is the unfinished job of cleaning our air. And, for many, the global warming of the planet has become an urgent concern. It is against this backdrop that for the first time ever legislation dealing broadly with energy and climate change is coming out of the House of Representatives. The Senate is also moving ahead on both issues. The decisions Congress makes will affect our well being for years to come. The House of Representatives has chosen the high cost solution to clean energy and climate change. Its economy-wide cap-and-trade and renewable energy mandate is a job-killing, 100 billion dollar a year national energy tax that will add a new utility bill to every American family budget. Republican United States Senators offer a different solution, a low-cost plan for clean energy based upon these four steps: • building 100 nuclear power plants within 20 years; • electric cars for conservation; • offshore exploration for natural gas and oil; • doubling energy research and development to make renewable energy cost competitive The House plan will raise prices and send jobs overseas looking for cheap energy. The Republican Senate plan will lower utility bills and create jobs and should put the United States within the goals of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming by 2030. Our plan should not add to the federal budget since ratepayers will pay for building the plants; federal loan financing for the first nuclear plants is designed not to cost taxpayers money, and nuclear plants insure one another. Offshore exploration for oil and gas should produce enough royalty revenues to pay for programs to encourage electric cars and trucks. And doubling energy research and development should cost about $8 billion more per year which is consistent with President Obama’s budget proposals for 2009 and 2010. In furtherance of our low cost plan, I am today as one senator offering a blueprint to build 100 nuclear power plants in 20 years. I hope this blueprint will attract comments and support from Americans of all political persuasions in and out of Congress. I welcome those comments at www.alexander.senate.gov. * * * This is a good time to step back and ask, “Just what is it we are trying to accomplish with this energy and climate change legislation?” What kind of America should we hope to create during the next 20 years? • First and foremost, we should want to see an America running on energy that is clean, cheap, reliable and abundant. In order to produce nearly 25 percent of the wealth in the world, we consume about 25 percent of the world's energy. • We should want an America in which we create hundreds of thousands of "green jobs" but not at the expense of destroying tens of millions of red, white and blue jobs. In other words, it doesn't make any sense to employ people in the renewable energy sector if we are throwing them out of work in manufacturing and high tech. That's what will happen if these new technologies raise the price of electricity and send manufacturing and other energy-intensive industries overseas searching for cheap energy. We want clean, new energy-efficient cars, but we want them built in Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, not Japan and Mexico. • We should want an America capable of producing enough of our own energy so that we can’t be held hostage by some other energy-producing country. • We should want an America where we are the unquestioned champion in cutting-edge scientific research and lead the world in creating the new technologies of the future. • We should want an America producing less carbon. I believe we should not be throwing 29 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the environment every year. And that means less reliance on fossil fuels. • And an America with cleaner air – where smog and soot in Los Angeles and in the Great Smoky Mountains is a thing of the past – and where our children are less likely to suffer asthma attacks brought on by breathing pollutants. • Finally, we should want an America in which we are not creating "energy sprawl" by occupying vast tracts of farmlands, deserts, and mountaintops with energy installations that ruin scenic landscapes. The Great American Outdoors is a revered part of the American character. We have spent a century preserving it. There is no need to destroy the environment in the name of saving the environment. None of these goals are met by the House of Representatives Waxman-Markey bill. What started out as an effort to address global warming by reducing carbon emissions has ended up as a contraption of taxes and mandates that will impose a huge and unnecessary burden on the economy. Renewable energy such as wind and solar and biomass are intriguing and promising as a supplement to America's energy requirements. Yet the Waxman-Markey bill proves once again that one of government's biggest mistakes can be taking a good idea and expanding it until it doesn't work anymore. Trying to expand these forms of renewable energy to the point where they become our prime source of energy has huge costs and obvious flaws that may be impossible to overcome. What's worse, such an effort creates a whole new problem – which some conservationists call "the renewable energy sprawl" – where we are asked to sacrifice the American landscape and overwhelm fragile ecosystems with thousands of massive energy machines in an effort to take care of our energy needs. For example, one big solar power plant in the western desert, where they line up mirrors to focus the sun’s rays and which spreads across more than thirty square miles — that’s more than five miles on each side — produces the same 1000 megawatts you can get from a single coal or nuclear plant that sits on one square mile. To generate the same 1000 megawatts with wind you would need 270 square miles of 50-story wind turbines. Generating 20 percent of our nation’s electricity from wind would cover an area the size of West Virginia. To those of us in the southeast where the wind blows less than 20 percent of the time, they say “use biomass” – which is burning wood products, a sort of a controlled bonfire. That’s a good idea. It might reduce forest fires and conserve resources. But let’s not expect too much. We’d need a forest much larger than the 550,000 acre Great Smoky Mountain National Park to feed a 1000 megawatt biomass plant on a sustained basis. And think of the energy used and the carbon produced by the hundreds of trucks it will take every day to haul the stuff to that one plant. Already we are beginning to see the problems. Boone Pickens, who has said that wind turbines are “too ugly” to put on his own ranch, last week postponed what was to be America’s largest wind farm because of the difficulty of building transmission lines from West Texas to population centers. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District pulled out of another huge project to bring wind energy in from the Sierra Nevada for the same reason — the transmission lines were meeting too much opposition, particularly from environmental organizations. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, California officials are worried that that state’s renewable mandates have created a “high risk to the state economy. . . and that the state may be short on power by 2011 if problems continue to pile up.” Add to that a point that many forget: wind and solar energy is only available about one-third of the time – because today it can’t be stored. You use it or lose it. Solar’s great advantage is that the sun shines during peak usage hours while the wind often blows at night when there is plenty of unused electricity. But with either, if you want to be sure your lights will turn on and your factory will open its doors, you still need other power plants for back up. Is this really the picture of America we want to see in 20 years? * * * There's a better option. Let's take another long, hard look at nuclear power. Nuclear is already our best source for large amounts of cheap, reliable clean energy. It provides only 20 percent of our nation's electricity but 70 percent of our carbon-free, pollution-free electricity. It is already far and away our best defense against global warming. So why not build 100 new nuclear power plants during the next 20 years? American utilities built 100 reactors between 1970 and 1990 with their own (ratepayers’) money. Why can't we do it again? Other countries are already forging ahead of us. France gets 80 percent of its electricity from 50 reactors and has among the cheapest electricity rates and the lowest carbon emissions in Europe to show for it. Japan is building reactors from start to finish in four years. China is planning 60 new reactors while Russia is selling its nuclear technology all over the world. India is making plans. President Obama has even said Iran has the right to use nuclear power for energy. We invented this technology. Isn't it time we got back in the game? There seem to be two things holding us back, both of which are discussed at length in this blueprint: First, a failure to appreciate just how different nuclear is from other technologies - how its tremendous energy density translates into a vanishingly small environmental footprint. A uranium fuel pellet the size of a thimble contains the energy equivalent of 1780 pounds of coal, 149 gallons of oil, or 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas. France, which gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, stores all of its unusable radioactive waste – from 30 years of producing – beneath the floor of one room at their facility in La Hague. Second, an exaggerated fear of nuclear technology. Nuclear power plants were the result of President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program. The idea was to take perhaps the greatest invention of the last century and use it to provide low cost energy to reduce poverty around then world. A nuclear power plant is not a bomb. The fissionable material makes up only 4 percent of the reactor fuel. It would have to be enriched to 90 percent to make a bomb. Even then, you have complicated physics to make it explode. Nuclear plants are run completely differently today than they were when a valve failed thirty years ago at Three Mile Island. Now, operators train for five years before they are allowed to take the controls. They have more training than airline pilots. As for terrorist attacks, I invite you to go to YouTube and type in “plane crashing into wall.” There you will see a test conducted by the Department of Energy in the 1980’s. They took an F-4 fighter jet, strapped it to a railroad track and accelerated it to 500 miles per hour—faster than an airliner—before crashing it into a simulated nuclear containment structure. The containment structure was fine after the crash. There wasn’t much left of the plane. There is also the misconception that nuclear plants are uninsurable and can’t exist without a huge federal subsidy. There is a federal insurance program for nuclear plants called Price-Anderson, but it has never paid a dime of insurance. And today the way it works is that every one of the 104 nuclear plants in the country can be assessed 100 million dollars in damages for an accident at another reactor. That’s another factor adding to safety consciousness. Most reactors have revenue of $2 million a day, which pays for the $5 billon construction loans and still makes possible low rates for consumers. When the Tennessee Valley Authority restarted its Brown’s Ferry Unit 1 reactor two years ago, TVA thought it would take ten years to pay off the $1.8 billion construction debt. It took three years. When oil prices were skyrocketing, Connecticut proposed putting a windfall profits tax on the state’s two reactors because they were making so much money. * * * Nuclear power is the obvious first step to a policy of clean and low- cost energy. One hundred new plants in 20 years would double U.S. nuclear production, making it about forty percent of all electricity production. Add 10% for sun and wind and other renewables, another 10% for hydroelectric, maybe 5% for natural gas—and we begin to have a cheap as well as clean energy policy. Step two for a cheap and clean energy policy is to electrify half our cars and trucks. According to estimates by Brookings Institution scholars, there is so much unused electricity at night we can also do this within 20 years without building one new power plant if we plug in vehicles while we sleep. This is the fastest way to reduce dependence on foreign oil, keep fuel prices low, and reduce the one third of carbon that comes from gasoline engines. Step three is to explore offshore for natural gas (it’s low carbon) and oil (using less, but using our own). The final step is to double funding for energy research and development and launch mini-Manhattan Projects like we had in World War II, this time to meet seven grand energy challenges: improving batteries for plug-in vehicles, making solar power cost competitive with fossil fuels, making carbon capture a reality for coal-burning plants, safely recycling used nuclear fuel, making advanced biofuels (crops we don’t eat) cost-competitive with gasoline, making more buildings green buildings and providing energy from fusion. The difficulties with nuclear power are political not technological, social not economic. The main obstacle is a lingering doubt and fear in the public mind about the technology. Any progressive Administration that wishes to solve the problem of global warming without crushing the American economy should help the public resolve these doubts and fears. What is needed boils down to two words: presidential leadership. We can’t wait any longer to start building our future of clean, reliable and affordable energy. The time has come for action. We can revive America’s industrial and hi-tech economy with the technology we already have at hand. The only requirement is that we open our minds to the possibilities and potential of nuclear power. As we do, our policy of cheap and clean energy based upon nuclear power, electric cars, off-shore exploration and doubling energy R&D will help family budgets and create jobs. It will also prove to be the fastest way to increase American energy independence, clean the air and reduce global warming. I hope you will let me know your thoughts at www.alexander.senate.gov. For a full copy of the Senator's blueprint please click HERE.