Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- “‘National Windmill Policy’ Equivalent of ‘Going to War in Sailboats’”

Posted on April 20, 2010

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record following my remarks an article from Newsweek magazine by George F. Will entitled ``This Nuclear Option Is Nuclear.''  

   The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.  

   (See exhibit 1.)  

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, Thursday is Earth Day. Actually, it is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. It is a good day to celebrate by creating a national resolve in our country to build 100 new nuclear power plants in the next 20 years, which would be the best way to create the largest amount of pollution-free, carbon-free electricity. Today, nuclear power produces 20 percent of America's electricity but 69 percent of all of our carbon-free, pollution-free electricity.  

During 2009, America's national energy policy looked more like a national windmill policy--the equivalent of going to war in sailboats. If we were going to war, the United States wouldn't think of putting its nuclear navy in mothballs. Yet we did mothball our nuclear plant construction program--our best weapon against climate change, high electricity prices, polluted air, and energy insecurity. Although 107 reactors were completed between 1970 and 1990, producing 20 percent of our electricity today--which, as I said, is 69 percent of our carbon-free electricity--the United States has not started a new nuclear plant in 30 years.  

Instead of using our own nuclear power invention to catch up with the rest of the world, President Obama, in his inaugural address, set out on a different path: America would rely upon ``the sun, the winds, and the soil'' for energy. There was no mention of nuclear power. Windmills would produce 20 percent of our electricity. To achieve this goal, the Federal Government would commit another $30 billion in subsidies and tax breaks.  

To date, almost all the subsidies for renewable energy have gone to windmill developers, many of which are large banks, corporations, and wealthy individuals. According to the Energy Information Administration, big wind receives an $18.82 subsidy per megawatt hour--25 times as much per megawatt hour as subsidies for all other forms of electricity production combined. Last year's stimulus bill alone contained $2 billion in windmill subsidies. Unfortunately, most of the jobs are being created in Spain and China. According to an American University study, nearly 80 percent of that $2 billion of American taxpayer money went to overseas manufacturers. Despite the billions in subsidies, not much energy is being produced. Wind accounts for just 1.3 percent of America's electricity--available only when the wind blows, of course, since wind cannot be stored, except in small amounts. 

Conservation groups have begun to worry about what they call the ``renewable energy sprawl.'' For example, producing 20 percent of U.S. electricity from wind would cover an area the size of West Virginia with 186,000 turbines and require 19,000 miles of new transmission lines. These are not your grandmother's windmills. These turbines are 50 stories high. Their flashing lights can be seen for 20 miles. An unbroken line of giant turbines along the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail--except for coastlines, ridgetops are about the only place turbines work well in much of the East--would produce no more electricity than four nuclear reactors on 4 square miles of land--and, of course, you would still need the reactors for when the wind doesn't blow. 

There are other ways a national windmill policy also risks destroying the environment in the name of saving the environment. The American Bird Conservancy estimates that the 25,000 U.S. wind turbines today kill 75,000 to 275,000 birds per year. Imagine what 186,000 turbines would do. One wind farm near Oakland, CA, estimates that its turbines kill 80 golden eagles a year. 

To be sure, similar concerns about sprawl exist for other forms of renewable energy. For example, it would take continuously foresting an area 1 1/2 times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to produce enough electricity from biomass to equal the electricity produced by one nuclear reactor. A new solar thermal plant planned for California's Mojave Desert was to cover an area 3 miles by 3 miles square, until environmental objections stopped it.

At least for the next couple decades, relying on windmills to provide our Nation's clean electricity needs would be like wandering off track from your house in Virginia through San Francisco on the way to the corner grocery store. This unnecessary journey offends the commonsense theory of parsimony, defined by scientist Spencer Wells as ``don't overcomplicate … if a simpler possibility exists.'' 

The simpler possibility that exists for producing lots of low-cost, reliable green electricity is to build 100 new nuclear plants, doubling U.S. nuclear power production. In other words, instead of traveling through San Francisco on your way to the corner grocery store, do what our country did between 1970 and 1990: Build 100 reactors on 100 square miles of space--several of them would be on existing reactor sites--compared with the 126,000 new square miles needed to produce that much electricity from biomass or the 26,000 square miles needed for wind. Unlike wind turbines, 100 new nuclear reactors would require fewer transmission lines through suburban backyards and pristine open spaces. They would also require much less taxpayer subsidy. At current rates of subsidy, taxpayers would shell out about $170 billion to subsidize the 186,000 wind turbines necessary to equal the power of 100 nuclear reactors.

While Federal Government loan guarantees are probably necessary to jumpstart the first few reactors, once we have proven they can be built without delays or huge cost overruns, no more loan guarantees will be needed. In fact, the Tennessee Valley Authority just finished rebuilding the $1.8 billion Brown's Ferry reactor on time and on budget, proving it can still be done. Yet, even if all $54 billion in loan guarantees defaulted--which isn't going to happen--it would still be less than one-third of what we are putting into wind. 

My concern about the unrealistic direction of our national windmill policy led me to give five addresses on clean energy over the last 2 years. The first, delivered at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2008, called for a new Manhattan Project--like the one we had in World War II but this time for clean energy independence. Then, a year ago at Oak Ridge, I proposed building 100 new nuclear plants, a goal that all 40 Senate Republicans adopted, along with 3 other goals: electrifying half of our cars and trucks, expanding offshore exploration for natural gas and oil, and doubling clean energy research and development. 

My concern during 2009 deepened as members of the Obama administration, with the conspicuous exception of Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, seemed to develop a stomach ache whenever nuclear power was mentioned. The President himself seemed unable to mention the subject. Last year, at a climate change summit in New York City, President Obama chided world leaders for not doing more to address climate change, but he didn't mention the words ``nuclear power'' during his entire speech. That is ironic because many of the countries he was lecturing were making plans to build nuclear plants to produce carbon-free electricity and we were not. Climate change was the inconvenient problem, but nuclear power seemed to be the inconvenient solution. 

Fortunately, with the arrival of 2010 has come a more welcoming environment for nuclear power. In his State of  the Union Address, President Obama called for ``a new generation of safe, clean nuclear reactors.'' His 2011 budget request recommends tripling loan guarantees for the first reactors, and in February, his administration announced the awarding of the first two loan guarantees for nuclear power. He has selected distinguished members, both for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and for a new blue ribbon commission, to figure out the best way to dispose of used nuclear fuel. 

Democratic Senators--several of whom, in fairness, have long been supporters of nuclear energy--have joined with the current 41 Senate Republicans--to create bipartisan support. Last December, for example, Democratic Senator Jim Webb, of Virginia, a former Navy Secretary, and I introduced legislation to create an environment that could double nuclear power production and to accelerate support for alternative forms of clean energy. 

There seems to be a growing public understanding that nuclear reactors are as safe as other forms of energy production. A nuclear plant is not a bomb; it can't blow up. Our sailors have lived literally on top of reactors for nearly 60 years without a nuclear incident. Nobody in the United States has ever been killed in a nuclear accident. Most scientists agree it is safe to store used nuclear fuel onsite for 60 to 80 years while those scientists figure out how to recycle used fuel in a way that reduces its mass by 97 percent, reduces its radioactive lifetime by 99 percent, and does not allow the isolation of plutonium, which could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

In addition, there is a growing realization by those who worry about climate change that if Americans want to keep consuming one-fourth of the world's electricity and we want large amounts of it to be low-cost and carbon-free, nuclear power is the only answer for now. 

It has also helped, and been a little embarrassing as well, that the rest of the world has been teaching Americans the lesson we first taught them. China is starting a new nuclear reactor every 3 months. France is 80 percent nuclear and has electricity rates and carbon emissions that are among the lowest in Europe. Japan gets 35 percent of its electricity from nuclear and plans 10 more reactors by 2018. There are 55 new reactors under construction in 14 countries around the world--not 1 of them in the United States. 

I believe we must address human causes of climate change, as well as air pollution that is caused by sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury emissions from coal plants. But I also believe in that commonsense theory of parsimony: Don't overcomplicate things if a simpler possibility exists. 

My formula for the simplest way to reach the necessary carbon goals for climate change without damaging the environment and without running jobs overseas in search of cheap energy is this: 

No. 1, build 100 new nuclear powerplants in 20 years. 

No. 2, electrify half our cars and trucks in 20 years. If we plug vehicles in at night, we probably have enough electricity to do this without building one new power plant.  

No. 3, explore for more low-carbon natural gas and the oil we still need.  

No. 4, launch mini-Manhattan Projects to invent a low-cost, 500-mile battery for electric cars and a 50-percent efficient solar panel for rooftops that is cost-competitive with other forms of electricity, as well as better ways to recycle used nuclear fuel, to create advanced biofuels, and to recapture carbon from coal plants.  

These four steps should produce the largest amount of energy with the smallest amount of pollution at the lowest possible cost, thereby avoiding the pain and suffering that comes when high energy costs push jobs overseas and make it hard for many low-income Americans to afford heating and cooling bills. 

One day, solar and other renewable energy forms will be cheap and efficient enough to provide an important supplement to our energy needs and can do so in a way that minimizes damage to our treasured landscapes. Earth Day, as it comes Thursday, is a good day to remember that nuclear power beats windmills for America's green energy future.