US without nuclear 'unthinkable' says senator

06 February 2015

The US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) has hailed calls from the chairman of the Senate subcommittee responsible for energy funding to take steps to avoid a decline in US nuclear capacity as a well-timed "clarion call".

Lamar Alexander, senator for Tennessee, made his comments in a speech on energy policy delivered to the NEI. Taking as his title "The United States without nuclear power," he cited a Center for Strategic and International Studies report suggesting that up to 25 of the country's 99 operating reactors could close by 2020. The closure of nuclear reactors - and the prospect of a USA without any nuclear power - was a "real threat to our economy and way of life," he said.

The Senate appropriations subcommittee on energy and water is about to embark on a year-long exercise to delve further into the issue, Alexander said.

"Our subcommittee will begin expanded oversight with budget hearings in February and March, and then in April we’ll turn toward a series of hearings about the future of nuclear power in our country - and what it would be like for the United States to be without it."

Alexander illustrated his premise by comparing the USA with Japan, Germany and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). With the post-Fukushima lay-up of its nuclear reactors, Japan - an economy he described as most like that of the USA – had seen 56 % increases in electricity generating costs, a severe constraint for a country relying on manufacturing.

He described Germany, with its heavily subsidised policy of replacing nuclear with renewables, as "an energy mess". As well as the estimated $1.2 trillion price tag of the energy transition, Alexander noted, Germany was also facing the prospect of relying heavily on electricity imports from France and gas imports from Russia and even starting to build new coal-fired plants in attempts to produce enough reliable baseload electricity without nuclear's help.

In contrast, Alexander held up the UAE's new-build program as an example of what nuclear could achieve.

"In just 12 years … the Emirates will have completed four reactors, which will provide nearly 25% of its annual electricity by 2020. This is a nearly three-and-a-half times faster increase in emission-free green power than Germany has accomplished with wind and solar," he said.

Needs must

Alexander set out his vision of a six-point policy plan by which the USA could "avoid the path of Japan or Germany". Firstly the country must build more reactors - with 25 reactors likely to retire and 20% of current US coal capacity due to go off line by 2020, 100 new reactors would not be an excessive number, he said.

The country must also "solve the nuclear waste stalemate", he said, calling for the resumption of the plan for a waste repository at Yucca Mountain, a project that the senator has long championed. Citing the recent completion of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's safety evaluation report, he said that to continue to oppose Yucca Mountain because of radiation concerns "is to ignore science".

The other points of Alexander's action plan included addressing the issue of excessive regulation, avoiding policies of "picking winners and losers" through overly ambitious energy subsidies, doubling energy research, including into small nuclear reactors, and encouraging energy diversity.

NEI senior vice president for governmental affairs Alex Flint welcomed the senator's comments. "Senator Alexander hit it out of the park today. His clarion call for policies to ensure that America can continue to depend on reliable, carbon-free nuclear energy comes at a perfect time," he said.

In a statement, Flint said that the NEI particularly welcomed year-long examination of the issues promised by the senator and praised the long-term view being taken.

"Senator Alexander has a pragmatic understanding of the need for a robust, diverse energy infrastructure with a portfolio of generation technologies," he added.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News