Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Lamar Alexander’s Nuclear Blueprint

alexanderpic Yesterday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) announced at the National Press Club a document he entitled Blueprint for 100 New Nuclear Power Plants in 20 Years. It’s as full an explication of Alexander’s ideas as you could want to see.

Here’s the gist of it:

Republican United States Senators offer a different solution, a low-cost plan for clean energy based upon these four steps:

  • building 100 nuclear power plants within 20 years;
  • electric cars for conservation;
  • offshore exploration for natural gas and oil;
  • doubling energy research and development to make renewable energy cost competitive

The House plan will raise prices and send jobs overseas looking for cheap energy.

Nuclear energy and electric/hybrid cars make a great combination and answers to worries about the need for electricity for a mammoth new (if still potential) market. Although we’re not sure one would have to fight for offshore drilling if cars found another energy source, it shows Alexander keeping his options open.

Some elements gave us pause:

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.

We assume that’s wind and solar. If so, Alexander walks it back later:

Despite the weaknesses of solar and wind [well, he sort of walks it back], both still have definite contributions to make [and] therefore should be part of any energy plan.

But for the most part, he’s on solid ground, even on wind and solar. They really cannot provide baseload energy – that is, reliable and consistent energy – and nuclear energy can do that. That’s key for ramping down carbon emitting plants.

In the blueprint, Alexander looks at how we might bring about 100 nuclear power plants:

  • It’s expensive but not paralyzing. Alexander offers a price of $700 billion, “less than the cost of the … stimulus,” and “nearly all the money will come from private investment.”
  • It will mean “mean a rebirth of Industrial America,” because a market emerges for fabrication plants and other elements. Alexander notes correctly that there is already a ramp-up in manufacturing nuclear plant parts in this country.
  • No NIMBY issues. With nuclear high in the polls, and higher in areas with a plant (all true), Alexander still hedges his bets a bit by noting that many of the 100 reactor could go to existing plants “without developing many new locations.”

We know that this plan cannot really gain a lot of traction in a Democratic-controlled Congress, but Alexander impressively tamps down ideology (well, there’s a bit in his preamble) to deal exclusively in what’s known and factual. That means his plan really can be a blueprint for Dems as well as Repubs who want to get up to speed on the issues.

One can disagree with his plan on premise or on points, but he does lay out the case intelligently and with good arguments. We read through a preliminary draft (where the quotes come from), so haunt his Web site to get a copy of the final version.

Senator Alexander’s been thinking about energy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm signing in as an anonymous user, but I'll identify myself: E. Michael Blake

Before this discussion becomes too heated, I ask that everyone please read the Senate Republicans’ bill, specifically the sections on nuclear power. I’ve done so, and while I don’t find anything objectionable (maybe a few things that are ill-advised), I also don’t see it as a bold declaration for new power reactors. For Alexander, Inhofe, or anyone else to suggest that this bill would give us all the nuclear power we’ve been denied would strike me as disingenuous.

Just about all of the nuclear passages are advisory, requesting that the NRC do what it can to meet the bill’s targets, without infringing on the agency’s mission to uphold public health and safety. The targets are for a “fast track” for licensing, which would be available only for established reactor operating companies who use certified designs and existing reactors sites. The ABWR is certified, but has to be amended for digital I&C and aircraft impact, at least; the other four designs are in the certification pipeline. So even if it were enacted today, the fast track couldn’t be used until 2011 or later.

There are, by my count, 51 existing power reactor sites in states that do not have laws banning new reactor construction (this figures FitzPatrick+Nine Mile Point and Hope Creek+Salem as single sites). To get to 100 new reactors, strictly on the fast track, there would have to be two new reactors at just about every one of those sites. What counts as an existing site would also be subject to some legal wrangling; technically, Summer-2 and -3 are greenfield, because they’re sited about a mile from Summer-1, to take advantage of hard-rock terrain.

As for the fast track itself, I don’t see how it’d be faster than what exists now. The NRC would be asked to shorten the environmental review to one year (if it can do so within its mission), but the existing environmental review for current COL applicants is already, on average, about a year shorter than the safety review. The bill’s proposed shortening of the safety review is so vague that I can’t see it as a target. So how would the fast track make any entity that qualifies for it more eager to apply for COLs than it already is (or isn’t)?

The COL process so far has been pretty rough, but it’s first-of-a-kind. Is it so broken that it needs fixing, and would this bill fix it? The truly motivated applicants are sticking with it, and seem to be doing pretty well; the ones who were in it mostly for the incentives are slipping away; the ones who became dissatisfied with their reactor vendor would not become more satisfied under this bill. The bill also makes modest-to-substantial success (say, a total of 50 new reactors) look like failure, by setting an arbitrary number of 100 (which is stated in the bill as merely a policy goal). What if, even in a much quicker licensing environment, there just isn’t enough material, money, experience, and interest to build 100 reactors by 2030? (The bill refers to 100 reactors or “megawatt equivalent,” which doesn’t give actual numbers, but might be construed to mean, maybe, 100 GWe total, so getting to 100 by adding a bunch of smaller reactors, none of which has started the certification process yet, wouldn’t meet the goal.)

There are one or two passage in this bill, like one aimed at getting more resources for the NRC (although this too is pretty weak, just asking the NRC to say how much more it would need to do a lot more licensing), that might make it into a bill that could be signed into law. If those passages get through, the current Senate Republicans’ bill may not turn out to have been a pointless exercise. Right now, though, it seems like it’s really being oversold, with promises that it wouldn’t deliver.