Friday, October 09, 2009

Who knew? A politician gives a good speech on energy.

On September 21, 2009, something happened on the floor of the Senate that is becoming increasingly rare: A Senator gave a reasoned, well researched, and intelligent speech on an important topic that was free of vitriol and over-the-top partisan back-biting. That the speech just happened to be on energy made it especially important to me and that it was given by the Senator from my old home state made it even better.

Lamar Alexander (R-TN) used his speech to advocate for nuclear energy which I agree with. I have long said that if we want to address global warming, we must build nuclear power plants. He and I have a slightly different view of wind--I think it definitely has a place in the electricity mix when used in concert with bulk energy storage and smart grid technologies--but wind and solar will never replace baseload coal no matter how much you may wish for a green future. It just ain't gonna happen. So, we need nuclear. And we need to get busy building nuclear plants today. Now.

Sen. Alexander's speech (our text is a little glitchy) is so on the mark when it comes to nuclear power, that I think it is worth repeating here (click for more on Alexander's energy views):
Mr. President, if health care were not our first concern today, energy and climate change would be. It is lurking in the shadows, having had a lot of work done in the House, and it is about to come before the Senate. So as to the remarks I wish to make today, if I had to put a title on them, I would choose this: What the United States should really fear about nuclear power.

Communications experts say fear is the best way to get attention when you are trying to win an argument. Groups who oppose nuclear power have certainly mastered that technique by playing to economic, environmental, and safety fears.

So I wish to introduce a little element of fear into my argument here. I want to suggest what could happen if we do not adopt nuclear power as a more important part of our energy future, if Russia and China and India and a lot of other countries go with nuclear--as they are now--while we get left behind. Are we going to be able to compete with countries that have cheap, clean, reliable nuclear power while we are stuck with a bunch of windmills and solar farms, producing expensive, unreliable energy or, more likely, not much energy at all? The whole prospect of the United States ignoring this problem-solving technology that we invented is what I fear most about nuclear power.

Let me give you an idea of what I am talking about. A few years ago, in January 2006, the Chinese sent a delegation of nuclear scientists and administrators to the United States on a fact-finding mission. They toured the Idaho National Laboratory, the Argonne National Laboratory, and they visited GE and Westinghouse, trying to decide which technology to choose for their nuclear program.

Now you might wonder why anyone would be seeking our advice about nuclear power when we haven't issued a construction permit to build a new reactor in the past 30 years. But as Kathryn McCarthy, deputy director of the Idaho National Laboratory, said at the time:

The world still looks to us for leadership in this technology. They'd prefer to copy what we've already done. They don't like being on the cutting edge.

Well, that may have been true in 2006, but it's not anymore. The Chinese eventually chose Westinghouse technology for their first reactors. At the time, Westinghouse was an American company. In 2007, Toshiba bought Westinghouse, so now it is a Japanese-based company. Then when the Chinese got their Westinghouse reactor, they insisted on having all the specifications so they could see how it was put together. That is what we call "reverse engineering." As you might guess, China's next wave of reactors is going to be built with Chinese technology.

By 2008, the Chinese had shovels in the ground. The first four Westinghouse reactors are scheduled for completion by 2011. They also bought a pair of Russian reactors, which should be finished around the same time. They started talking about building 60 reactors over the next 20 years and just recently raised it to 132. They're in the nuclear business.

What have we accomplished in the meantime? Well, people in the United States have been talking about a "nuclear renaissance" in this country since the turn of the century. In 2007, NRG, a New Jersey company, filed the first application to build a new reactor in 30 years. They're still at the beginning of what promises to be at least a 5-year licensing process before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. No one really knows how long this will take, since as soon as the licenses are issued, opponents will file lawsuits and the whole thing will move to the courts. If they are lucky, they might have a reactor up and running by 2020. Other companies have followed suit, and there are now 34 proposals before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but nobody in the United States has yet broken ground. So it is not likely the Chinese will be coming to us any time soon for more tips on how to build reactors. In fact, we will probably be going to them.

That is one aspect of what is going on in the world today. Here is another. As countries began constructing new reactors, it quickly became clear that the bottleneck would be in forging the steel reactor vessels. These are the huge, three-story-high, forged steel units that hold the fuel assembly--the reactor core. That means forging steel parts that may weigh as much as 500 tons.

In 2007, the only place you could order a reactor vessel was at the Japan Steel Works, and they were backed up for 4 years. Everyone started saying: This is going to be what holds up the world's nuclear renaissance. They will never be able to produce enough of those pressure vessels.

So what happened? Well, first, Japan Steel Works invested $800 million to triple its capacity. They are going to be turning out 12 pressure vessels a year by 2012. Then the Chinese decided to build their own forge. In less than 2 years, they put up a furnace that can handle 320-ton parts. They turned out their first components in June. Now they are building two more forges. So, you see, the Chinese will not be standing in line in Japan any time soon. The Russians are doing the same thing. They are in the midst of a big revival, planning to double the production of electricity from nuclear power by 2020. They are also building a forge and just cast their first 600-ton ingot in June. France, Britain, South Korea, and India are all following suit. Very soon, every major nuclear country in the world is going to be able to forge its own reactor vessels, except one--and that is us, the United States.

No steel company in America is capable of forging ingots of more than 270 tons. We are still stuck in the 1960s. That means when it comes to building reactors, we will have to stand in line in Japan or somewhere else. In fact, just about everything in our first new reactors is going to be imported. The nuclear industry tells us that at least 70 percent of the materials and equipment that go into these first few reactors will come from abroad. That is because we have let our nuclear supply industry wither on the vine. In 1990, there were 150 domestic suppliers making parts for nuclear reactors. Today, there are only 40, and most of them do their business overseas. Of the 34 proposals before our Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 20 are designed by Westinghouse, now a Japanese company, and nine are from AREVA, the French giant. General Electric, the only American company left on the field, has partnered with Hitachi. They together

shining in Arizona"? That was pretty good too. Now have you seen any GE ads, in this day of concern about climate change, that say that 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity comes from nuclear power? I certainly haven't.

Babcock & Wilcox is the one American company that stirred some interest recently when it announced plans for a new "mini reactor." This is a 125-megawatt unit that can be manufactured at the factory and shipped by rail to the site, where several units can be fit together like Lego blocks. This left the impression that America might be innovating again, forging back into the lead. But the complete prototype for the Babcock & Wilcox reactor is still 2 years away, and then it may take another 5 years to get the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's design approval. Meanwhile, the Russians are already building a mini reactor that will be floated into a Siberian village on a barge to produce power. The Russians have already got orders for mini reactors from 12 countries. So in spite of Babcock & Wilcox's fine effort--and I am certainly proud of them--the Russians are considerably ahead of us.

Let's take stock. There are 40 reactors now under construction in 11 countries around the word--not one of them in the United States of America. In fact, only two are in Western Europe: one in Finland and the other in France, both built by AREVA. All the rest are in Asia. Although we have not gotten used to it, Asia may soon be leading the world in nuclear technology.

Japan has 55 reactors and gets 35 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, almost double the 19 percent we get here in the United States. The Japanese have two reactors under construction and plans for 10 more by 2018. The Japanese are finding they can build a reactor, start to finish, in less than 4 years. That is less time than it takes to get one American reactor through licensing at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

South Korea gets nearly 40 percent of its electricity from nuclear--that is twice as much as we do--and is planning another 8 reactors by 2015. So far, they have bought their reactors from the Japanese, but now they have their own Korean next-generation reactor--a 1,400-megawatt giant evolved from an American design. They plan to bring two of these on line by 2016. Taiwan also gets 18 percent of its electricity from nuclear and is building two new reactors.

In September, Bloomberg News reported that Japan Steel Works' stock had risen 8 percent on the Tokyo Stock Exchange because of China's decision to double future construction from 60 to 132 new reactors. They figure they will get some of the action at Japan Steel Works. Much of China's $586 billion stimulus package is going toward developing nuclear power.

"While China had been focusing on building new coal plants," said Bloomberg, "it has now shifted its focus to nuclear because of the environmental issue," said Ikuo Sato, president of Japan Steel Works, in Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, India is embracing thorium, a technology a lot of people think may eventually replace uranium as nuclear fuel. Thorium is twice as abundant as uranium and doesn't produce the plutonium everybody worries will be used to make a bomb. There is a lot of enthusiasm for thorium among scientists in our country. But it is India that is going ahead, with 6 reactors under construction and 10 more planned. They began with a Russian design, but they are also trying some American technology they acquired in signing their 2005 agreement with the Bush administration.

What about Chernobyl. Well, just like everybody else, Russia stopped all construction on new nuclear reactors after that horrible accident. But they learned their lesson and started constructing much safer reactors in the 1990s, completing the first in 2001. Now they have plans to expand along the lines of France, building two reactors every year from now through 2030. They have a very good reason. Russia has huge natural gas supplies, but it is wasting them by using one-third of it to produce electricity. They could get six times the price by selling natural gas to Western Europe. So they are replacing gas generation with nuclear--which is exactly the opposite of what we are doing here. Since 1990, every major power plant built in this country burns natural gas. We now get 20 percent of our electricity from natural gas--more than nuclear's 19 percent, and the natural gas percent is still going up.

And be aware, all these countries that are developing nuclear just aren't building them for themselves. They are selling to the rest of the world as well. AREVA is building reactors in Finland, China, Italy, Brazil, and Abu Dhabi. The Russians have signed deals with China, Iran, India, Nigeria, and Venezuela. They are even selling to us. In July, Tenex, Russia's uranium corporation, signed a long-term contract to supply fuel to Constellation Energy, which has reactors in Maryland and upstate New York. It was the sixth contract Tenex signed with an American utility in the past 2 months.

How did the Russians end up supplying us with uranium? It is a long, interesting story and the most important players stood and worked on this Senate floor. In 1996, Senator Sam Nunn, Senator Pete Domenici, and Senator Richard Lugar pioneered a remarkable deal with the post-Soviet Government, in which we would buy highly enriched uranium from old Soviet bomb stocks. The uranium would be sent to France, where it would be "blended down" from 90 percent fissionable material to 3 percent to be used in American reactors. For the last two decades, old Soviet stockpiles have supplied half our nuclear fuel. One out of every ten light bulbs in America is now powered by a former Soviet weapon--one of the greatest swords-into-plowshares efforts in history, although few people seem to know about it. Now the Russians

Once upon a time we were pioneers in nuclear technology. Forty years ago, we were the only people in the world who knew how to deal with the atom. That is not true anymore. We have shied away from the technology while everyone else has forged ahead. Even Europe is coming back. The British have announced they are going nuclear. They have hired the French national electric company to help. Italy closed all its nuclear reactors right after Chernobyl but ended up importing 80 percent of their electricity at a huge cost. Now they have announced they are going back to nuclear as well. France already gets 80 percent of its power from nuclear and has the cheapest electricity in Europe, not to mention the second lowest carbon emissions, behind Sweden, which is half nuclear. France also sells $80 billion worth of

So does that mean we have fallen completely behind? Not at all. In fact, there is a great irony to all this. We still know how to run reactors better than anyone else in the world. Our fleet of 104 plants is up and running 90 percent of the time. No one else even comes close. France, for all its experience, is still at 80 percent. Other countries are even lower. We still understand the technology better than anyone else in the world. But because we have placed so many obstacles in our path, we aren't allowed to build reactors anymore. And that is what scares me. We are gradually losing our economic place in the world.

Now a lot of people say: Well, what is the difference? So what if we fall behind on nuclear technology. We will forge ahead with something else. Well, there are several reasons to be concerned:

First, there is energy security. America already spends $300 billion a year importing two-thirds of our oil from other countries. If we remain on the current path of no new nuclear power or start depending on other countries to build our reactors and supply us with fuel, we are going to be even more vulnerable than we are today. The best way to reduce imported oil, aside from ramping up domestic production, will be to use electricity to power cars and trucks. At first, we can plug our electric vehicles in at night when there is much unused electricity. After that, we should be using nuclear. We can't have Americans going to bed every night hoping the wind will blow so they can start their cars in the morning.

Second, there is the matter of technological leadership. Americans produce, year in and year out, 25 percent of all the wealth in the world. Most of that wealth has been driven by new technologies. We were the birthplace of the telephone, the electric light, the automobile, the assembly line, radio, television, and the computer. But nuclear energy--perhaps the greatest scientific advance of the 20th century--is passing us by. The 21st century is going to run on clean, cheap, greenhouse-gas-free nuclear power. And, how can we criticize India and China for not reducing their carbon emissions when we refuse to adopt the best technology ourselves?

Then there is weapons proliferation. In the 1970s, we gave up on nuclear reprocessing in the hope that by not dealing with plutonium, we would prevent nuclear weapons from spreading around the world. That has turned out to be an unwise decision. France, Britain, Russia, Canada, and Japan went right on reprocessing and no one has stolen plutonium from them. Instead, rogue countries, such as North Korea and Pakistan, have found their own ways to develop nuclear weapons. The technology of bomb making is no big secret anymore. The real problem is that by reneging on world leadership, we have left the field to others. For instance, right now the Russians are building a commercial reactor for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. He is not exactly friendly toward the United States. To make things more interesting, Manhattan District Attorney Morganthau recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that his office has recently uncovered evidence that Iran may be providing Venezuela with missile technology.

But what worries me are these two issues: First, if we do decide to move toward a nuclear-based economy and we have to import 70 percent of the technology and equipment, how are we any better off than when we were importing two-thirds of our oil? We will just be creating jobs for steelworkers in Japan and China instead of the United States. Second, if we don't move toward a nuclear-powered economy but try to do everything with conservation and wind and solar, we are going to be sending American jobs overseas looking for cheap energy.

So to ensure we have enough cheap, clean, reliable, no-carbon electricity in this country to create good, high-quality, high-tech jobs, here is what I believe we have to do. The United States should double its production of nuclear power by building 100 nuclear reactors in 20 years. Nuclear today provides 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity. Wind and solar provide 4 percent. Nuclear plants operate 90 percent of the time. Wind and solar operate about one-third of the time.

The Obama administration's Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, says nuclear plants are safe and that used nuclear fuel can be safely stored onsite for 40 to 60 years while we figure out the best way to recycle it. Producing 20 percent of electricity from wind, as the Obama administration proposes, will require building 186,000, 50-story turbines--enough to cover an area the size of West Virginia--plus 19,000 miles of new transmission lines to carry electricity from remote to populated areas. One hundred new nuclear plants could be built mostly on existing sites.

To produce 3 percent to 6 percent of our electricity, the taxpayers will be subsidizing wind to the tune of $29 billion over the next 10 years. The 104 nuclear reactors we have today were built basically without taxpayer subsidies. It will cost roughly the same to build 100 new nuclear plants, which will last 60 to 80 years, as it would to build 186,000 wind turbines, lasting 20 to 25 years. And this doesn't count the cost of transmission lines for wind. Finally, there will be twice as many green jobs created building 100 nuclear reactors as there would be created building 186,000 wind turbines.

An America stumbling along on expensive, unreliable renewable energy, trying to import most of our energy from overseas, is going to be an America with fewer jobs and a lower standard of living.

Nuclear opponents continue to prey on fear of nuclear power. The truth is, if we want safe, cost-effective, reliable, no-carbon electricity, we can no longer ignore the wisdom of the rest of the world. The real fear is that we Americans are going to wake up on one cloudy, windless day, when the light switch doesn't work, and discover we have forfeited our capacity to lead the world in creating jobs because we ignored nuclear power, a problem-solving technology we ourselves invented.