Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -Truly Historic Small Nuclear Reactors

Posted on June 12, 2009

I would like to tell you about a tremendous historic development in our country’s goal to have clean air; deal effectively with climate change; and develop enough low-cost, reliable electricity to help keep and create American jobs. Last week, I attended a press conference held by Babcock & Wilcox Company at which the company announced its partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority to make an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permission to start building and selling a small nuclear reactor—a reactor that can be built in a factory, shipped by railway, and put together like Lego blocks at the site. The nuclear reactor provides 125-megawatts of electricity—that’s one-tenth the size of a traditional reactor. So the real prospect exists that we will be able to have, in this country, nuclear reactors for electricity that might cost as little as one-tenth to build, can be built in three years instead of six, and can produce 125 megawatts instead of 1,200, making it easier to integrate them into our electric grid. I am excited about this prospect because it has a real chance of happening. No one has built more small reactors in the world than Babcock & Wilcox, and the Tennessee Valley Authority is the largest public utility in the United States, and is leading the nation as the only utility in the United States currently building a nuclear power plant. One day, we might be able to make more of our electricity from the sun, the wind, and the earth. But at the moment, not much is available. It is expensive and power is only available when the sun shines and when the wind blows. If you want to operate your computer, or manufacture an automobile in Illinois or Tennessee, or turn on your light at night, you don't want to have to pray that the wind is blowing or that the sun is shining. You want reliable, low-cost electricity. In Tennessee, we are excited about the prospect that one day solar energy could make a big difference in our electricity options. In fact, two big new plants have moved into our state to make polysilicon, which is the product that goes into the solar cells that go on the top of your house. Each of those plants uses 120 megawatts of electricity. Where will they get that electricity? One reason they are in Tennessee is that the TVA supplies a lot of low-cost, reliable electricity, which comes from coal, hydro, and nuclear power (with a small amount coming from natural gas). That is pretty much the way it is around the country. Solar power is not yet low-cost and reliable. You can't run the plant making the solar energy products on solar power or wind power today. We need to find more American energy and use less. Energy that’s as clean as possible, as reliable as possible, and as cheap as possible. The best place to start is by building more nuclear plants. To those who are still skeptical of nuclear power, we must say, if global warming is an inconvenient problem, then nuclear power is the inconvenient solution. America's nuclear technology has been falling behind. The French, the Japanese, and the Russians are all selling reactors around the world—to India, China and other places. These small nuclear reactors will make them sit up and take notice because the concept is perfect for developing nations that do not have the infrastructure to handle the larger reactors. It is perfect for small towns and factories all over America that may need only 125 megawatts and cannot afford something larger. It is what is called “distributed generation”—producing electricity onsite instead of wheeling it from deserts or mountaintops hundreds or thousands of miles away. As the old saying goes, “small is beautiful.” So I think with this development people may begin to rethink nuclear power. It is already happening out there. People are recognizing that the dangers of nuclear have been wildly exaggerated, that there is nothing to be fearful about. And once we realize that, we are going to see nuclear power for what it is: an appropriate technology that will enable us to meet our future energy needs without overwhelming the world with pollution that affects our health, and that of the climate. This is the way for us to clean the air, deal with global warming, and at the same time have low-cost, reliable electricity in large amounts so that we can keep American jobs here in America.