Senator Lamar Alexander: Forum on Energy Q&A

Senator Baker and Senator Alexander at the 2nd Session of the U.S.-Japan Roundtable

Forum on Energy posed a series of questions to Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who participated in the 2nd Session of the U.S.-Japan Roundtable series, which explored the facets of nuclear energy in the United States. His responses address the political and economic outlook for nuclear power in a post-Fukushima world.

Forum on Energy: Just over a year after the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has now granted its first two construction and operating licenses in over 30 years. What is the current status of what was once called a “nuclear renaissance”?

Senator Alexander: Instead of a nuclear renaissance, I’d call it more a reawakening. I looked it up, and a “reawakening” means an awareness about something, a recognition of something—in this case, a recognition of the importance of nuclear power to our country.

There are a lot of positive signs—in Tennessee, TVA has completed Browns Ferry, is working to complete a second unit at Watts Bar, and then are authorized to start work on Bellefonte. The NRC has issued new licenses for four reactors at two locations—Georgia and South Carolina—and several more applications are pending for that same reactor design. In Congress, we’re discussing how to manage used nuclear fuel. Earlier this year, the president’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future released its report on the disposal of used nuclear fuel, and Senators Bingaman, Feinstein, Murkowski and I are working together to begin a process to lead us to a permanent solution for disposing of used nuclear fuel.  In this year’s Senate Energy and Water Appropriations bill, we included language to authorize the Department of Energy to begin a pilot project to consolidate spent fuel at one or more storage sites. Of course, last year in the Energy and Water Appropriations bill we funded a new, five-year small modular reactor program. This program will help drive innovation and licensing for these small modular reactors. These factors all point toward a reawakening, and I am confident of the future of nuclear power in this country.

Forum on Energy: What role will small modular reactors play in the future of nuclear power?

Senator Lamar Alexander

Senator Alexander: Small modular reactors cost less to build and will give utilities and industrial companies the ability to generate clean energy in places that previously couldn’t accommodate a nuclear reactor because of their size. This is especially important because the Energy Information Administration estimates we’re going to have a 23 percent increase in demand for electricity by 2035, and 70 percent of our pollution-free electricity comes from nuclear power. I suggested a few years ago that we need 100 new nuclear plants. I still think this is accurate, given that we will not only have to replace some of the older reactors but also accommodate the increase in demand for electricity. These much smaller investments could make nuclear energy much more attractive.

Forum on Energy: Now that the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future has issued its final report, how can the United States begin to address the challenge of storing used nuclear fuel?

Senator Alexander: Senators Bingaman, Feinstein, Murkowski and I are working together on developing a comprehensive bill to implement the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations for the long term. In the short term, the bipartisan pilot program for consolidating spent fuel included in the Energy and Water Appropriations bill is a good first step. It has been applauded by the Blue Ribbon Commission. This pilot program is needed regardless of one’s position for Yucca Mountain or against Yucca Mountain. Successfully implementing this pilot program will not only help regain the trust of the public, but also the trust from the utilities who are tired of seeing the federal government not live up to its responsibility of disposing of used nuclear fuel. There is still work to be done though, and I intend to keep working with my colleagues to solve this issue.

Forum on Energy: As Japan debates whether to restart its idled fleet of nuclear reactors, what are the consequences of Japan decreasing its reliance on nuclear power?

Senator Alexander: It seems that every day there is a new report coming out of Japan about its decision to shut down its 54 nuclear power plants. On May 6 of this year, Reuters reported on the last reactor being closed down, and spoke about the public “wavering between two sources of anxiety” — fear over the safety of nuclear  power and doubts on whether Japan can live without it.  We read that factories are being closed down or forced to run during the nights or on the weekend so they have enough electricity. The Tokyo-based Institute of Energy Economics estimated that Japan’s GDP would fall by 3.6 percent and 200,000 jobs may be eliminated as a result of shutting down all of its nuclear reactors. Japan has also had to increasingly rely on imports of natural gas by ship from foreign sources to try to make up the difference in electricity supply, creating a significant strain on its economy. Shigeo Ishihara, mayor of Omaezaki, was quoted last year in Bloomberg saying, “If we don’t keep these reactors operating, Japan’s economy will wither—our young people will move abroad, leaving the country with only grandpas and grandmas.” Without a sufficient amount of clean, reliable, base load electricity, it is nearly impossible to have a growing country with the standards to which the Japanese people have become accustomed to.

Forum on Energy: Given record-low natural gas prices, why would a utility company invest in new nuclear reactors?

Senator Alexander: The short answer is: Utilities know that putting all your eggs in one basket can be dangerous. While the price of natural gas in the United States is a serious obstacle to new nuclear power—and energy experts agree that we have significant natural gas reserves so the price is likely to stay low or go lower for the foreseeable future—most of us can remember the natural gas price spikes from five to six years ago, and utilities understand that diversifying their generation sources can help to shield their rate payers from these price anomalies. 

Utilities will also tend to look at electricity production over the next several decades when making decisions because of the long-term investments that are required. We have nuclear reactors that can operate safely for at least 60 years and potentially more, which favors long-term investments for nuclear power. 

The other answer is that natural gas is a fossil fuel and nuclear power is completely clean. Although natural gas generation is cleaner than coal, nuclear power emits no carbon dioxide at all, and, unlike most clean energy sources(because hydro is clean and baseload), can be used for baseload power.

All of these factors points toward a promising future for nuclear power. The idea that the United States will be using as much as 25 percent of the world’s electricity without a major—I believe increasing—part of it being provided by nuclear reactors, is unrealistic in my point of view.