Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Climate Change

Posted on September 23, 2009

Mr. President, with great respect to the President of the United States, I am still shaking my head a little bit in disbelief at his speech yesterday on climate change at the Climate Change Summit in New York. Here we had 100 leaders from around the world in our country to talk about climate change and the President said what he has said before, which is that we need to stop putting so much carbon in the air because carbon is the principal greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, in the opinion of most scientists. But in saying that, the President did not mention the one way we have to create a lot of low-cost electricity without putting any carbon in the air, and that is nuclear power -- a process that the United States invented; a process that the United States operates more efficiently than any other country in the world. It produces 19 percent of our electricity, and our plants operate 90 percent of the time. Even France, which gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, only operates its plants 80 percent of the time. He failed to mention nuclear power even though it produces 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity, and even though every one of the other top five carbon emitting nations in the world are committed to a full-scale construction program for nuclear power. This is what the President said: The developed nations that caused much of the damage to the climate over the last century have the responsibility to lead -- and that includes the United States. Well, according to the Wall Street Journal on Monday, September 21, in its news pages, we know who produces the carbon: China is No. 1 -- 6 million metric tons; the United States is No. 2 -- nearly 6 million metric tons. So we produce about the same. Russia is next -- 1.7 million; India is next; Japan is next. Those are the top five carbo emitting nations. President Obama lectured other countries when he said: But those rapidly developing nations -- And here he means China and India. -- that will produce nearly all the growth in global carbon emissions in the decade ahead must do their part as well. He is right about that. The President went on to say: We cannot meet these challenges unless all the largest emitters of greenhouse gas pollution act together. There's no other way. He is right about that. But then, to my great astonishment -- and I am sure to others -- he stopped there and he basically was saying to China and to Russia and to India, as well as Japan: You must do something about carbon. We are going to take the lead. Yet they all are building nuclear power plants that emit zero carbon and we haven't started one new reactor in 30 years, even though we invented it. How can the President of the United States lecture other countries about th e carbon they produce -- the principal greenhouse gas -- when they are expanding the one technology that could do the most to solve the problem? Let's be very elementary here. Coal and natural gas plants produce nearly 40 percent of the carbon when they produce electricity. The President did boast of how the United States is committed to building windmills and solar panels. In fact, his administration wants to build 20 percent of our electricity from wind turbines. These aren't grandma's windmills, these are the giant 50-story wind turbines that they want to string along the Appalachian Mountain tops, from the Smokey Mountains to the White Mountains, along the coastlines, and run 19,000 miles of transmission lines to get the power to our homes and businesses. That is the plan. And to a point, that plan can help. I mean, renewable energy -- solar panels, wind turbines -- is a supplement to the electricity we need. But today, wind turbines and solar panels produce about 3 to 4 percent of America's carbon-free electricity. Nuclear power produces 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity. So why not expand nuclear power? Yet we haven't built a new nuclear powerplant in 30 years. What is happening around the world? Well, they are not slowing down. They are taking full advantage, as the world often has, of American ingenuity. We invented nuclear power here. And after we invented the atom bomb, President Eisenhower and other scientists in the 1950s said: Let's have an atoms for pea ce program. So we went off on two tracks. We used nuclear reactors to operate our Navy, which we have done successfully, without incident ever since the 1950s. Admiral Rickover pioneered that. So today we have about 80 Navy vessels operated by reactors and, during the 1970s and 1980s, we built 104 nuclear reactors. This was the Atoms for Peace Program. We took what probably was the greatest scientific invention of the last century, the reactor, and used it to produce a lot of low-cost, reliable energy -- which is the dream of the world, to have a lot of low-cost, reliable energy for everyone in the world. That is the one of the single best steps toward reducing poverty and increasing prosperity. So here we are in the United States, using our 104 nuclear reactors -- not having built a new one in the last 30 years -- to produce 19 percent of our electricity and 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity. But what is happening around the world? There are 44 new nuclear powerplants under construction in the world. China has four under construction. This was the first country the President would be lecturing: Do something about carbon-free electricity. So China is planning 132 nuclear powerplants and we are constructing zero. We have not constructed one in 30 years. How can we lecture China about carbon if they are building 132 nuclear powerplants, which would be enough to produce one-fourth of all the electricity the United States uses? That is more than we produce today th rough nuclear power. Russia is building two a year. One reason Russia is doing it is because they want to sell their natural gas to Europe at a lot more expensive price, so they are taking advantage of nuclear power to raise their standard of living. Japan is 36 percent nuclear power today. Japan, as everyone knows, suffered under the two atom bombs that were dropped. But they have come to terms with the safe use of atoms for peace, nuclear-power-produced electricity -- 36 percent of their electricity is nuclear. They are building two more plants. The United States has not built a plant in 30 years. South Korea, one of the most successful emerging countries -- in America, one of those countries that the President might be saying you need to do something about climate change -- they are. Forty percent of their electricity is carbon-free nuclear power and they are building eight more nuclear plants by 2015 and we have not built one in 30 years. India, the largest democracy -- we point our finger at them and say we don't have to do anything about climate change until you do. They are. They are considering a thorium reactor. They are committed to nuclear power, partly because of the agreement between the United States and the Bush administration and India, and we are helping them build nuclear powerplants. We are helping China as well. But we have not built one in 30 years. The President even said Iran has the right to build a nucle ar powerplant; not a nuclear bomb but a nuclear powerplant. We have not built one in 30 years. France -- we don't usually like to say the French are ahead of us. We have a little love-hate relationship with France, but look what they have done. They have taken our nuclear reactor invention and 80 percent of the electricity in France comes from nuclear power. They have among the lowest rates of carbon emissions in the entire European Union. They have among the lowest electricity prices in the European Union. They are selling electricity to Germany, which is the only one of the European countries that has said they don't want any nuclear power. So they are buying nuclear power from France. There are many other countries in the world that are using nuclear power. But as the Wall Street Journal said: China, the United States, Russia, India, and Japan produce most of the carbon. Scientists believe carbon produces 40 percent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming and the United States is the only one of those five countries that is not committed to the construction of new nuclear powerplants. The President's plan instead is an energy tax and renewable mandates that would force us to build more giant wind turbines. Wind turbines work some places. They don't work in my part of the country. The wind doesn't blow enough, and we don't want to see them on our mountaintops. I am a sponsor of Senator Cardin's mountaintop removal bill. We don't want people20blowing up our mountaintops and dumping the tops of the mountains in our streams. We don't want them putting 50-story wind turbines that don't turn more than 19 percent of the time up there either. So there is a growing recognition that in addition to the unreliability of renewable energy, the energy sprawl on our landscape is something we should think about. One thing we should think about is think about where to put renewable energy installations, to make sure they are in appropriate places. The other thing to think about is are there any alternatives to renewable energy. The answer, of course, is, yes, there are alternatives to renewable energy. The principal one is nuclear power. Let me be specific. In order to make 20 percent of our electricity in the United States from carbon-free sources, we could either build about 186,000 wind turbines -- these are 50 stories tall -- that would cover an area about the size of West Virginia. Or we could build 100 new nuclear reactors. We have 104 today. Remember, China is building 132. Today, nuclear produces about 20 percent of all our electricity; wind provides about 1.3 percent. Nuclear power is baseload power because it operates 90 percent of the time. That means we could have it on almost all the time. Wind power is intermittent. It only works when and where the wind blows and there is no way today to commercially store large amounts of that electricity. Nuclear, as I mentioned earlier, ope rates 90 percent of the time. Wind operates about 33 percent of the time. When you read that you have 1,000 megawatts of electricity from nuclear, that means you have 900 megawatts because it operates 90 percent of the time. When you read you have 1,000 megawatts of wind, that means you probably have 300 or 350 megawatts because it only operates a third of the time and, as they found in Denmark and other places, the wind often blows at night when we don't need it. We have lots of unused electricity at night. As far as additional infrastructure, building 100 new nuclear reactors would take very little new infrastructure because you could locate them mostly on the existing sites where we now have the 104 nuclear reactors we have today. Wind turbines, on the other hand, as I said, would take an area the size of West Virginia, plus 19,000 miles of new transmission lines that would go from unpopulated areas, through suburban areas, to populated areas where people need the electricity. What about the Federal subsidy? Sometimes people say these big new nuclear plants must have a big federal subsidy, but the fact is they do not. To produce the first 100 plants that we have, they were built without much federal subsidy. To build 100 more, the estimates are for $17.5 billion over 10 years, including a capped nuclear production tax credit -- that would build the 100 nuclear plants. To build 186,000 wind turbines the taxpayer would shell out about $170 billion. We hear a lot of about green jobs, let's have renewable electricity because that produces green jobs. Green jobs are good jobs. We have two big new plants in Tennessee that the Governor recruited and they make polysilicone, which is for the purpose of making solar panels. We hope solar energy works and we believe it will. Today it costs four to five times in our area what other electricity costs, but we hope the price comes down and we are all for that. But the estimate for nuclear's green jobs to build 100 reactors would be about 250,000 construction jobs. To build 180,000 1.5 megawatt wind turbines would be about a third of that, 73,000 construction jobs, and then 70,000 permanent jobs for nuclear and 77,000 permanent jobs for the wind turbines. They would be about the same. The lifetime of a nuclear plant is about 60 to 80 years. The lifetime of the wind turbines is about 20 to 25 years. At a recent hearing which was chaired by the Senator from California, we talked with the Interior Secretary about the possibility of bonds for the developers who are putting up these 186,000 turbines. What if they wear out after 15 or 20 years, which is what they are expected to do? Or what if policies change? Or what if subsidies disappear? Or what if we decide we prefer other forms of energy? Who is going to take them down? We need to think about that, just as we did not think about abandoned mines all over the country -- 47,000 alone in California. Then there is the visual impact I mentioned. If you build 100 big nuclear powerplants, 100 reactors, they have tall cooling towers. There is a visual impact there. But you do it mostly on the sites where the 104 are today, where they are well accepted by the people in those communities and it is only 100 of them and it only takes about 100 square miles. Mr. President, 186,000 wind turbines would cover 25,000 square miles, which is an area the size of West Virginia. I hope as we proceed, after health care, to our debate on energy and climate change, that we will take a more realistic attitude. I am one of those Senators who believe climate change is a problem. I believe humans are contributing to it. I think it is time for us to stop emitting so much carbon into the air. But I would like for us to do that in a low-cost, sensible way that permits us to keep our jobs in this country and not in a high-cost way that causes us to drive jobs overseas, looking for cheap energy. Every single Republican Senator has endorsed an energy plan that is, No. 1, 100 new nuclear powerplants in 20 years; No. 2, electrify half our cars and trucks in 20 years; No. 3, offshore exploration for natural gas, which is low carbon and oil -- we should use our own while we use it; and, No. 4, doubling research and development for alternative energy. How can we make solar cost-competitive? How can we find a way to recapture carbon from coal plants? How can we have advanced biof uels? How can we find the fourth generation of nuclear energy that recycles used nuclear fuel in a way that doesn't produce any plutonium? It is not just the 40 Republican Senators who are interested in that. I have had a number of Democratic Senators talk with me about that. Many were far out in front of the issue before I began to speak so much about it. My hope would be that, as we look more seriously at the issue of climate change and energy, that we adopt a low-cost energy strategy. We don't need an energy tax that raises everybody's electric bill. We don't need a renewable energy mandate that requires us to put up wind turbines in the Southeast, where the wind doesn't blow, anymore than we need a nuclear energy mandate that requires people to put up nuclear plants where people don't want them or a hydroelectric mandate that requires States to put up dams where there is no river. We need a low-cost, clean energy policy. Almost every other major country in the world is deciding that nuclear power is the key to the future. Wind is a supplement. One day solar may be widely used as supplement. But for baseload power for a prosperous country there is no choice, in my view. So climate change may be the inconvenient problem, as my friend and fellow Tennessean, Al Gore, says. But nuclear power, I am afraid, is the inconvenient solution, and I hope we will move to the day when the President of the United States will go to a summit on=2 0climate and say: Yes, we are building wind turbines in appropriate places; yes, we are having solar thermal panels in appropriate places; yes, we have doubled and tripled our investment in research and development for alternative energy. But as the country that invented low-cost, reliable, clean, carbon-free nuclear energy, I, the President of the United States, have set as goal that we will double the amount of electricity we will produce from nuclear power. If the President went to Copenhagen and said we were committed to build 100 new nuclear powerplants in 20 years and to electrify half our cars and trucks in 20 years, just implementing those two goals would get us close to the Kyoto Protocol standards in 2030; just implementing those two goals -- 100 new nuclear plants and electrifying half our cars and trucks -- and we can do both. We already did both. Between 1970 and 1990 we build 104 reactors, not to mention the 81 U.S. Navy vessels powered by nuclear reactors, so we have done that. Most experts, including many in the Obama administration, agree we can electrify half our cars and trucks, and probably without building one new powerplant because we have so much unused electricity at night. We can plug them in at night. We will be reducing imported oil, keeping the price of fuel low, we will be cleaning the air, and we will be dealing with global warming. So why are we engaged in a 1,000-page energy tax, a cap-and-trade system that doesn't effectively deal with fuel, that adds to taxes, and it runs jobs overseas, when we have before us the technology we invented that would lead us into the next century? So I hope those issues evolve. I have seen that sometimes we do not have the votes on this side of the aisle, but we have the right message. Sometimes we find if we work with our colleagues on the other side, we can have the same message. So I believe there are many Democrats and all of the Republicans who will join in setting a new national goal of 100 new nuclear plants in the next 20 years. I believe we already have consensus on electrifying half of our cars and trucks. So if that will help us reach the climate change goals, why don’t we do that instead of a national goal that raises the price of energy, increases poverty, runs jobs overseas, and causes all sorts of unanticipated problems? I yield the floor.