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Statements on Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


By Mr. UDALL of Colorado (for himself, Mr. BINGAMAN, and Ms. MURKOWSKI):

S. 2052. A bill to amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to require the Secretary of Energy to carry out a research and development and demonstration program to reduce manufacturing and construction costs relating to nuclear reactors, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Mr. UDALL of Colorado. Mr. President, I rise 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.

The environmental and energy security challenges that we faced in the 1970s, when that decade closed in the shadow of Three Mile Island, have changed significantly. When my father Mo Udall campaigned for President in the New Hampshire primary in 1976--and the Presiding Officer remembers that era--and when he was asked about the controversial Seabrook nuclear facility, no one had climate change on their list of environmental concerns.

Today, more than 30 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 our current energy system creates, we need a comprehensive and cleaner national energy policy. In this regard, clearly, nuclear energy 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, manufacturing, 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 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 and 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 a part of the mix.

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 some of 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 always must be the No. 1 priority at nuclear facilities. There is always more 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.

Let me note that carbon-capture and storage technologies at coal and natural gas plants could also potentially provide low-carbon baseload power at large scales too. And it is very important that we build these first commercial CCS plants and do all we can to develop economically viable carbon-capture and sequestration technologies.

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 will solve all of our energy challenges; we are going to need, in the parlance of the West, silver buckshot. Examining all the pros and cons, I have come to the view that nuclear energy is a part of that silver buckshot.

I know there are many who remain skeptical of nuclear power, including 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 a new licensing process that has never been tested. We have not ordered a new nuclear plant in three decades. 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 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, we need to build new nuclear plants over the next decade.

This first wave of new plants will go a long way toward 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.

Some may object to the building of new nuclear plants before we have a long-term solution to the question of what to do with nuclear waste. It is true we do not have a permanent solution right now. It is also true that the 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 uncertainty 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.

Let me turn to another subject tied to nuclear power production, and that
is reprocessing. It has been suggested that we should build commercial scale facilities in the United States to reprocess our spent fuel as France and Japan do. I do not believe that makes sense. Why? First, the French system of reprocessing is not a comprehensive waste management strategy, and so far the benefits from that approach have been fairly marginal. In other words, they have not solved their waste challenge with reprocessing. Secondly, we do not need to recycle spent nuclear fuel to enable the expansion of nuclear power in the United States and elsewhere. Uranium supplies are sufficient to support a worldwide expansion of nuclear power during this 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 production. I do not want to see separated plutonium in any country but especially in those that are unfriendly to us. And we are in a weaker position to try and 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 unnecessary. I do support research into advanced proliferation-resistant technologies, though none of those will be ready for deployment anytime in the near future. In general, 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.

We are going to be debating clean energy later this Congress. 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 to date provide jobs for thousands of Americans, and new plants would provide thousands more. New plants would also generate millions in tax revenues for State, local, and Federal governments struggling with large deficits from the economic downturn. Nuclear power's energy security and environmental benefits have earned this industry an important place at the table. It is my hope we can build some nuclear plants over the next decade to create jobs and build a cleaner, more secure tomorrow.

I invite all of my colleagues, from both sides of the aisle, to join Senator Bingaman, Senator Murkowski, and me in cosponsoring the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative Improvement Act of 2009.

One of my energy fellows, Matt Bowen, is leaving my office to join the Department of Energy. I thank Matt for his work in my office, including on the bill I am introducing today, and I wish him well at the Department of Energy. We have been well served as a country by Matt Bowen's patriotism and work ethic.


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