Lamar Alexander's Case for a Nuclear Renaissance

September 14th, 2009 - Senator Lamar Alexander is a Tennessee original—as familiar to most of us as our next door neighbor or the Smoky Mountains that rise along Eastern Tennessee’s horizon. Born, raised and ripened in nearby Maryville, this seventh generation Tennessean is undeniably one of us. His parents were both educators: his mother was a kindergarten teacher and his father was an elementary school principal. He grew up outdoors walking Tennessee’s long and winding trails, and fishing its pristine lakes—crappie at Kentucky Lake, trout at Abrams Creek and sauger at Pickwick Lake. And like the rest of us, Alexander spent many of his childhood vacations visiting the Chattanooga Choo Choo, exploring the nooks, crannies and peculiar rock formations of Rock City, and taking in the view from atop Lookout Mountain.

But from his rather ordinary Tennessee up-bringing Alexander took the road less traveled, climbing a proverbial political staircase that has led him to Washington D.C. Today, Senator Alexander is a force to be reckoned with, especially on issues pertaining to clean air and energy.

Alexander’s Journey

As a young man, Alexander met Congressman Howard H. Baker, Sr.—once when he was ten at the Blount County courthouse and another time as a teenager in the bustling venue of Washington D.C. Both times, Congressman Baker found time for a brief visit, and afterwords the congressman wrote him an inspiring personal note—a letter that hangs on Alexander’s wall of fame, even today.

“I’m sure that those two experiences had something to do with my volunteering to work for Congressman Baker’s son,” says Alexander, who in 1967, with degrees from Vanderbilt and New York University of Law under his belt, traveled to Washington D.C. to work as Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr.’s legislative assistant. The position gave him his first real taste of politics and fueled a lifelong interest in government, political affairs and service. The hours were long but somehow Alexander found time for a personal life.

While at a softball game for Senate staff members, Alexander met a yellow rose from Texas, Honey Buhler, a staffer for Senator John Tower. They married in 1969 and have four children: Drew, Leslee, Kathryn and Will.

In 1974, Alexander ran and lost the Tennessee gubernatorial race to Democrat Ray Blanton, who ironically portrayed Alexander as a man who couldn’t relate to average Tennesseans. Down but not out, Alexander caught his second wind and ran for governor again in 1978. He embarked on a 1,000-mile journey across the Tennessee countryside wearing his signature red and black plaid shirt, effortlessly connected with voters and easily defeated Jake Butcher by twelve percentage points, becoming Tennessee’s 45th governor. He was reelected to a second four-year term in 1982 after crushing Knoxville mayor, Randy Tyree, by almost twenty percentage points.

Between 1988 and 2000, Alexander served as president of the University of Tennessee and Secretary of Education under George H.W. Bush, while also making two unsuccessful runs for the White House. Th en in 2002, Alexander was persuaded to run for the open seat of retiring Senator Fred Thompson. Defeating Bob Clement, Lamar Alexander at 62 became the oldest elected freshman U.S. Senator from Tennessee in 78 years. Moreover, he won his 2008 reelection bid by a Tennessee landslide, carrying all but one of the state’s 95 counties.

Alexander’s Clean Energy Blueprint

Today, Lamar Alexander chairs the Senate Republican Conference, working hard to promote his low-cost, clean energy blueprint he says will lower utility bills, reduce global warming and create jobs, while providing consistent, on-demand electricity.

Specifically, Senator Alexander is calling for a Nuclear Renaissance to help solve our energy woes and kickstart an industrial revolution in America. He recommends that we build 100 new nuclear plants in the next twenty years, a measure that would double U.S. electricity production from nuclear power at the same time scientists and engineers continue to solve problems associated with nuclear waste and address other energy-related obstacles.

There are currently 104 nuclear plants in the United States generating twenty percent of our nation’s electricity (seventy percent of our carbon-free, pollution-free electricity). And in our region, thirty percent of the 27,000 megawatts of electricity that TVA generates every day comes from its three nuclear plants—Browns Ferry in Alabama, Sequoyah in Soddy-Daisy, and Watts Bar near Spring City.

“It’s a proven technology and offers a carbon-free, efficient and viable alternative for meeting our growing energy demands,” says Alexander. “Nuclear technology was invented and developed here in the United States, but we’ve turned away from it while other countries have embraced it and incorporated it into their energy equations.” And yes, we can operate our nuclear reactors safely, he adds, citing improvements in the regulation of nuclear power plants in the last three decades and our nuclear navy’s exemplary safety record.

Alexander also points out that France gets eighty percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants while enjoying the lowest energy rates in the world and the lowest carbon emissions in the European Union. Moreover, India, China, and Japan recognize the benefits of nuclear energy and are building new nuclear plants in their countries, and with our help. And Alexander is particularly excited about a somewhat new nuclear energy concept—mini reactor technology. “Companies like Babcock & Wilcox are in the process of applying to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for permission to start building and selling small nuclear reactors that can be built in a factory, shipped to a location, and assembled on-site like Lego blocks,” says the senior senator.

Alexander considers these modular mini reactors a game-changer, of sorts. Tennessee nuclear plants currently produce, on average, 1,000 megawatts of electricity daily. The proposed smaller reactors would produce 125 megawatts of power, making them easier to integrate into the existing power grid. Their price tag is about one-tenth of the cost of their large reactor ancestors and they can be built in half of the time—three years compared to six. Alexander says that the mini reactors have much smaller footprints than traditional nuclear reactors and are only two stories tall, compared to wind turbines that rise some fifty stories from the ground without providing a constant supply of electricity. Another bonus is that virtually all of the jobs required to build the parts and construct the small nuclear reactors will be here in the United States—not overseas.

“These smaller nuclear power-plants will give us more options,” he contends. “We can say to companies wanting to operate in Chattanooga and other Tennessee communities, ‘We can move in one or two 125 megawatt nuclear reactors, put them near your site and supply all the low-cost, reliable electricity that you need.’”

The Tennessee senator doesn’t see nuclear power generation as just a clean energy solution: he maintains that a Nuclear Renaissance will create the need for trained nuclear engineers, technicians, maintenance worker s , construction workers, specialty welders and many other related occupations. It could revive American industry and put Americans back to work in green jobs, he says, referencing Alstom, a French company that has announced plans to invest more than $200 million in Chattanooga to build a manufacturing facility for new steam turbines used in nuclear plants. Alstom has estimated that it will employ approximately 350 people.

“Nuclear energy is the answer to our problem while we continue to figure out renewable electricity,” he says. “But nuclear energy alone will not solve all our energy woes.” Alexander has been touting a methodical approach that starts with a simple “use less, need less” philosophy.

“It’s got to start with conservation and efficiency,” he remarks. “It’s the cheapest and easiest way to begin tackling the problem. We’ve got to push for better mileage for cars and promote everyday practices that use less energy—like using compact fluorescent lighting.”

Alexander is also calling for a modern day Manhattan Project: a five-year program consisting of a series of small projects designed to put America firmly on the path to clean energy independence. He proposes that we assemble the brightest minds and innovators of our time to address what he refers to as the seven grand energy challenges.

Alexander says the first of these challenges is to make plug-in cars and trucks commonplace in America’s near future. “We can power our vehicles by plugging them in at night without building one new power plant because we have so much unused electricity at night,” he says, emphasizing that TVA has 7,000 to 8,000 megawatts of unused electric capacity most evenings. But how will we utilize this surplus electricity without increasing pollution from coal plants? Alexander addresses that problem in his second grand challenge: work to make carbon-capture a reality for coal-burning power plants.

His third grand challenge is to find ways to make solar power cost competitive with power from fossil fuels. “Right now, solar electricity is four to five times more expensive than the base load electricity that TVA produces,” Alexander says. He references the irony that the two new plants being built in Cleveland and Clarksville to manufacture polysilicon for rooftop solar panels, will be powered by electricity generated at TVA’s coal and nuclear facilities. “You can’t run the plants making the solar energy products on solar power today,” he noted in a June speech to the senate, emphasizing that solar energy will not gain traction until it becomes economically competitive.

Among other challenges, Alexander says we must identify ways to reprocess and store nuclear waste, search for ways to make advanced biofuels cost-competitive with gasoline, build greener buildings and explore fusion.

It’s a lot to digest: a Nuclear Renaissance, a New Manhattan Project, conservation and efficiency and several grand energy challenges—complex solutions for a rather complicated problem. But in the shadows of our dwindling energy, dirty air and rising unemployment rates, Lamar Alexander has a plan that just might illuminate our path to recovery.