POWER POLITICS: Sen. Alexander: "Vive la nukes!"

lamar_alexander.jpgU.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee delivered the weekly Republican radio address Saturday, using the occasion to call on the United States to build new nuclear power plants. And not just a few plants, mind you, or even a few dozen: a hundred brand-new nuclear plants.

As surprising as Alexander's ambitious goal was the nation whose energy policy he held up as the example the U.S. should follow: France.

In recent years that country has more often been a target of derision from congressional Republicans, who were so galled by French objections to the invasion of Iraq that they struck the country's name from menus at House of Representatives restaurants, which instead served "freedom fries" and "freedom toast."

But Alexander, whose position as conference chairman makes him the Senate's third-ranking Republican, has apparently put the Iraq brouhaha behind him:
Now the debate in Congress is shifting to the size of your electric and gasoline bills and to climate change. So guess who has one of the lowest electric rates in Western Europe and the second lowest carbon emissions in the entire European Union.

It's France again.

And what's more, they're doing it with a technology we invented and have been reluctant to use: nuclear power.

Thirty years ago, the contrary French became reliant on nuclear power when others wouldn't. Today, nuclear plants provide 80 percent of their electricity. They even sell electricity to Germany, whose politicians built windmills and solar panels and promised not to build nuclear plants.
Alexander's call for French-style energy policy comes as the Senate Energy Commmittee is gearing up to consider Chairman Jeff Bingman's (D-N.M.) comprehensive new energy bill, which among other things sets forth a renewable energy standard. Debate is expected to get underway by next week, and Bingaman reportedly wants a full Senate vote by the end of May.

GOP lawmakers are expected to try to add provisions offering more subsidies for coal as well as nuclear power. Gearing up for a fight, sustainable energy advocates are holding a national call-in to Congress today against additional coal and nuclear subsidies.

In his address, Alexander criticized Democrats' for proposing billions of dollars in subsidies for renewable energy -- but he failed to note that nuclear power is already the most heavily subsidized industry in the energy sector. In 2005, Congress handed the nuclear power industry $13 billion in federal aid, and two years later went on to approve an additional $20.5 billion in loan guarantees, making U.S. taxpayers the cosigners on loans for new nuclear projects -- half of which are expected to end in defaults. Taxpayers and ratepayers have also forked over $11 billion for the Yucca Mountain high-level waste disposal dump, which the Obama administration recently scrapped over concerns about long-term safety.

In place of Yucca Mountain, Alexander advocates the French approach of what he called "recycling" of nuclear waste. But in truth, there is no such thing as nuclear waste "recycling"; what Alexander refers to is actually reprocessing, in which highly radioactive fission products are removed from spent fuel, which can then be reused. The problem is, reprocessing creates highly concentrated radioactive wastes and -- because of the chemical processes used -- actually increases the total volume of nuclear waste to be disposed of by a factor of 20 or greater.

The other reality that Alexander glosses over when he points to the low electricity rates enjoyed by the French is that its nuclear power program is a socialist enterprise: France's 59 nuclear power plants are run by √Člectricit√© de France (EDF), which is 85% owned by the French government. But then, as a member of the Senate caucus overseeing the federally chartered Tennessee Valley Authority, Alexander has close ties to a utility that straddles the line between private and socialist enterprise -- as well as one that's heavily reliant on nuclear power, which represents 30% of TVA's supply.

In his address, Alexander called nuclear power "pollution-free," which suggests a fundamental lack of understanding about the technology's environmental impact. He was likely referring to the industry's questionable claims that nuclear power plants are a solution to climate change. But it's simply untrue to call nuclear plants "pollution-free" since -- accidents aside -- even normally operating nuclear reactors emit radioactive pollution including radioactive gases such as krypton and xenon as well as tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has documented tritium contamination of groundwater at seven nuclear power plants across the country.

The risk of pollution from nuclear power plants is something the French are all too familiar with. Last July saw uranium spills from two separate nuclear plants in France that led to local bans on fishing and the use of tap water. Both of the incidents occurred at facilities owned by Paris-based Areva, which has U.S. headquarters in Bethesda, Md. and Lynchburg, Va. and is working with Maryland-based Constellation Energy to market its reactors in the United States.

Areva suffered a blow in the U.S. recently when AmerenUE canceled plans to build a new 1,600 megawatt Areva reactor at its Callaway nuclear plant in Missouri after the state refused to institute a scheme known as "Construction Work in Progress," which allows a utility to recover reactor construction costs from ratepayers before the reactors begins operation. Seen as a way to get around private investors' unwillingness to finance new reactors, CWIP has been adopted in other states including Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and the Carolinas.

In closing his address, Alexander said:
We say find more American energy and use less. Energy that's as clean as possible, as reliable as possible, and at as low a cost as possible. And one place to start is with 100 more nuclear plants.
Clean? Hardly. Low cost? At an estimated $6 billion per reactor, nuclear can't seriously be considered "low cost," nor can the estimated power generation costs from new nuclear plants of 25 to 30 cents per kilowatt-hour -- triple current U.S. rates.

Vive la nukes? Quelle horreur.