The Energy Spectator

Let’s Build 100 Nuclear Reactors — Again

We did it from 1970 to 1990. Why can't we do it again?

By 7.10.09

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(Updated, 7.10.09, 3:05 p.m.)

With the Waxman-Markey climate change and energy bill (Clean Energy and Security Act) now passed by the House of Representatives and moving to the Senate, we need to take a moment to reflect on exactly what it is we are trying to accomplish with this legislation.

What kind of America do we hope to create in the next 20 years?

• We want an America in which we have enough clean, cheap, and reliable energy to create good jobs and run a prosperous industrial and hi-tech society. In order to support the American economy that creates about 25 percent of the world's gross domestic product, we need to produce about 25 percent of the world's energy.

• We want an America in which we are not creating excessive carbon emissions and running the risk of encouraging global warming.

• We want an America with cleaner air -- where smog 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.

• We 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. We do not want to destroy the environment in the name of saving the environment.

• We 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. 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 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.

• And we 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.

None of these goals are met by the Waxman-Markey Bill. What started out as an effort to address global warming by reducing carbon emissions has ended up as a huge and unnecessary burden on the economy, a $100 billion a year job-killing national energy tax that will create a new utility bill for every American family.

This tax burden is relieved only by the vague hope that all this can be overcome by mandating increased use of a few alternative energy sources defined as "renewable." Renewable energies such as wind, 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 is 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 in renewable energy creates a whole new problem -- "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.

Is this really the America we want?

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, and 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:

1. An exaggerated fear of nuclear technology.

2. A failure to appreciate just how different nuclear is from other technologies -- how its tremendous energy density translates into a vanishingly small environmental footprint.

Nuclear power is the obvious first step to a policy of clean but low cost energy. One hundred new plants in 20 years would double U.S. nuclear production making it about 40 percent of all electricity production. Add 10 percent for sun and wind and other renewables, another 10 percent for hydroelectric, maybe 5 percent more 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. 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 be 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 relieve strained family budgets and a sick economy with 10 percent unemployment. It will also prove to be the fastest way to increase American energy independence, clean the air and reduce global warming.

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About the Author

Lamar Alexander is a Republican senator from Tennessee. On Monday, at the National Press Club, he will introduce his plan for building 100 new reactors.