Weekly Column of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) - Produce More, Use Less: Start with 100 New Nuclear Plants

Posted on May 3, 2009

Do you remember a few years ago when our Congress got mad at France and banned French fries in the House of Representatives cafeteria? We Americans always have had a love-hate relationship with the French, which was why it was so galling last month when the Democratic Congress passed a budget with such big deficits that it makes the United States literally ineligible to join France in the European Union. Of course, we don’t want to be in the European Union. After all, we’re the United States of America. But French deficits are lower than ours, and their president has been running around sounding like a Republican, lecturing our president about spending so much. Now the debate in Congress is shifting to the size of your electric and gasoline bills and to climate change. So guess who has one of the lowest electric rates in Western Europe and the second lowest carbon emissions in the entire European Union. It’s France again. And what’s more, they’re doing it with a technology we invented and have been reluctant to use: nuclear power. Thirty years ago, the contrary French became reliant on nuclear power when others wouldn’t. Today, nuclear plants provide 80 percent of their electricity. They even sell electricity to Germany, whose politicians built windmills and solar panels and promised not to build nuclear plants. This was exactly the attitude in the United States between 1979 and 2008 – when not one new nuclear plant was built. Still, nuclear, which supplies just 20 percent of all U.S. electricity, provides 70 percent of our pollution-free electricity. So you’d think that if Democrats were serious about energy and climate change and clean air, they’d put American-made nuclear power front and center. Instead, their answer is billions in subsidies for renewable energy from the sun, the wind, and the earth. Well, we Republicans like renewable energy, too. Matter of fact, we’ve proposed a new Manhattan Project – like the one in World War II – to find ways to make solar power cost-competitive and to improve advanced biofuels. But today, renewable electricity from the sun, the wind, and the earth provides only about one and one-half percent of America’s electricity. Double it or triple it, and we still don’t have very much. So there is a potentially a dangerous energy gap between the renewable electricity we want and the reliable electricity we must have. To close that gap, Republicans say start with conservation and efficiency. We have so much electricity at night, we could electrify half our cars and trucks and plug them in while we sleep without building one new power plant. On that, Republicans and Democrats agree. But when it comes to producing more energy, we disagree. When Republicans say, build 100 new nuclear power plants during the next twenty years, Democrats say there’s no place to put the used nuclear fuel. We say, recycle the fuel the way France does. They say, no, we can’t. We say, how about another Manhattan Project to remove carbon from coal plant emissions? Imaginary, they say. We say, for a bridge to a clean energy future, find more natural gas and oil offshore. Farmers, homeowners and factories must have that natural gas. And more of the oil we’ll still need should be ours, instead of sending billions overseas. Democrats can’t wait to put another ban on offshore drilling. We say incentives. They say mandates. We say, keep prices down. Democrats say, put a big new national sales tax on electric bills and gasoline. We both want a clean energy future, but here’s the real difference: Republicans want to find more American energy, and use less. Democrats want to use less – but they really don’t want to find much more. They talk about President Kennedy sending a man to the moon. Their energy proposals wouldn’t get America halfway to the moon. We Republicans didn’t like it when Democrats passed a budget that gave the French bragging rights on deficits. So we’re not about to let the French also outdo us on electric and gasoline bills, clean air and climate change. We say find more American energy and use less. Energy that’s as clean as possible, as reliable as possible, and at as low a cost as possible. And one place to start is with 100 more nuclear plants.