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Nuclear Power and a Comprehensive Energy Policy

Posted: Thursday, October 29, 2009

The following are Senator Udall's remarks as prepared for delivery:

Mr. President, I rise today to speak about the role nuclear energy can play in moving our country toward a more secure energy future.

For some, news that a Udall is speaking favorably about nuclear power will come as a stark - and perhaps unpleasant - surprise. But I also believe public and expert opinion on the risks and benefits of nuclear power has changed.

Mr. President, the environmental and energy security challenges we faced in the 1970s, when the decade closed in the shadow of Three Mile Island, have changed significantly. When my dad campaigned for president in the New Hampshire primary in 1976 and was asked about the controversial Seabrook nuclear facility, no one had climate change on their list of environmental concerns.

Today, more than thirty years on, we have a less parochial, and more global view about the challenges of energy security, climate change and the problems associated with carbon-based energy production.

Given the economic, national security, and environmental threats that our current energy system creates, we need a comprehensive and cleaner energy policy. In this regard, nuclear energy clearly has emerged as an important player in our search for a stable and domestic energy source that has less greenhouse gas emissions.

A cleaner energy economy will spur innovation in and accelerate the shift to clean and domestic energy sources. It will create a new industrial sector employing millions of Americans in the research, development, manufacture, sale, installation and servicing of new energy technologies.

And it will help reduce our dependence on foreign oil from unstable regions of the world.

Moreover, like it or not, we must address the climate challenge that we face. My state of Colorado is already seeing the indirect impacts of carbon pollution in the form of a devastating bark beetle infestation that is killing our forests.

Looking beyond environmental concerns, and as we face perhaps our greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, we also need an "all of the above" solution to jump-start our economy. That means continuing our development of renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, and biomass, as well as traditional energy resources, like coal, oil and cleaner fuels like natural gas.

That also means we should continue to invest in energy efficiency and conservation technology.

And that means that nuclear energy - and new nuclear power plants - must be part of the mix.

Mr. President, as I said earlier, a growing number of skeptics and even opponents of nuclear power are taking a second look at this industry. I count myself among them, and these are the reasons why:

First, in the last few decades, the performance and safety record of nuclear plant operations in the United States has greatly improved. Safety is, and must always be, the number one priority at nuclear facilities.

There is always more that we can do on safety, but the industry has built a good record and we should recognize that fact.

Then, there are the environmental benefits to nuclear power.

Unlike fossil fuel plants, nuclear plants do not emit appreciable amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, or particulate matter. That means they cause less acid rain, as well as fewer asthma complications and other health ailments.

Further, nuclear plants release minimal amounts of carbon pollution.

In fact, nuclear power plants are one of the few low-carbon, large-scale sources of baseload power that we know how to build today.

Carbon capture and storage technologies could potentially provide low-carbon, baseload power at large scales. And it is very important that we build the first commercial CCS plants and do all that we can to encourage the development of economically-viable technology.

Mr. President, I have long been a supporter of renewable energy and energy efficiency, and I will continue to be.

But the scale of the energy changes we must make dictates that we be open to the widest variety of energy options, particularly those with domestic potential and those with cleaner emissions. In other words, there is no silver bullet that can solve all of our energy challenges; we are going to need silver buckshot.

Examining all the pros and cons, I have come to the view that nuclear energy is part of our silver buckshot.

Now, I know that there are many who remain skeptical of nuclear power, including many good friends of mine.

Nuclear power is not trouble-free. No energy source is.

I hope we can all agree, however, on our clean energy goals: more jobs, greater energy security, and a cleaner environment for our children.

Supporters and opponents of nuclear power share another concern in common: neither knows for sure how much new nuclear plants are going to cost. We have not ordered a new nuclear plant in three decades. We have a new licensing process that has never been tested. Many nuclear technology components for at least the first wave of nuclear plants will likely be manufactured in other countries, and the future cost of construction materials is unknown.

These uncertainties, along with others, led the National Academy of Sciences to estimate that electricity from new nuclear plants would very likely cost in the range of 8 to 13 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is a considerable span.

Given the large potential of nuclear energy, however, I think we need to build new nuclear plants over the next decade.

The first wave of nuclear power plants will go a long way towards telling us whether new plants can be built on budget and on schedule in the United States. I hope the answers are "yes" and "yes", and that the final cost of electricity is at the lower end of the uncertainty range. I say this because - if nuclear energy is to survive as a viable option - it will need to compete against other low-carbon technologies in the long run.

Now, some may object to building new nuclear plants before we have a long-term solution to the question of what to do with nuclear waste.

It is true that we do not have a permanent solution right now. It is also true, Mr. President, that answers about the viability - both environmental and political - of Yucca Mountain as a permanent waste facility continue to elude us. I fully acknowledge that as a Member of the House of Representatives, I shared these concerns and voted accordingly.

But uncertainly about a long-term and permanent solution to waste storage is not a reason to halt nuclear power.

I am confident that we have the technical capabilities and knowledge to safely and responsibly store nuclear waste for the required time periods. This is not a technology problem; it is a challenge to find a fair and safe path forward, and I support the President's intention to appoint a blue ribbon commission to make such a recommendation.

In the meantime, dry cask storage provides a safe, proven option for at least 100 years. We have time to get this right, so let us not rush into anything out of a false sense of emergency.

It has been suggested that perhaps we should build commercial-scale facilities in the U.S. to reprocess our spent nuclear fuel as France and Japan do.

I do not believe that makes sense.

First, the French system of reprocessing is not a comprehensive waste management strategy, and the waste benefits to that approach are fairly marginal. In other words, they have not solved their waste challenges with reprocessing.

Secondly, we do not need to recycle spent nuclear fuel to enable an expansion of nuclear power in the United States and elsewhere. Uranium supplies are sufficient to support a worldwide expansion of nuclear power for the next century.

Third, the international proliferation risk associated with reprocessing is a concern. The process used in France creates separated plutonium, which could be diverted for weapons purposes.

We do not want more separated plutonium in any country, but especially in some unfriendly countries. And we are in a weaker position trying to dissuade those countries from reprocessing if we are doing it ourselves.

My conclusion is that a near-term decision to deploy reprocessing facilities would be unwise and is also unnecessary. I do support research into advanced, proliferation-resistant technologies, though none of these will be ready for deployment anytime soon.

In general, I think our goal should be to keep nuclear power as low-cost and proliferation-resistant as possible. To that end, today I am introducing a bipartisan bill: the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative Improvement Act of 2009. This bill, which is cosponsored by Chairman Bingaman and Ranking Member Murkowski, authorizes the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct research into modular and small-scale reactors, enhanced proliferation controls, and cost-efficient manufacturing.

Mr. President, we are going to be debating clean energy legislation later this Congress, and I know several of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle would like to see a strong nuclear title. I hope we can come to a reasonable compromise that advances nuclear power and allows us to finally put a price on carbon pollution. That will give the energy sector the certainty it needs to begin planning and building our clean energy future and to begin creating clean energy jobs.

Nuclear plants currently provide jobs for thousands of American, and new plants would provide thousands more.

New plants would also generate millions of dollars in tax revenues for state, local and federal governments that are struggling with large deficits from the economic downturn.

In closing, nuclear power's energy security and environmental benefits have earned this industry an important place at the table. It is my hope that we can build some new nuclear plants over the next decade to create jobs and build a cleaner, more secure tomorrow. And I invite all my colleagues - from both sides of the aisle - to join Senator Bingaman, Senator Murkowski and myself in cosponsoring the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative Improvement Act of 2009.

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