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[cdn-nucl-l] NUCLEAR POWER, THE OPTION FOR THE 21ST CENTURY?
NUCLEAR POWER, THE OPTION FOR THE 21ST CENTURY?
PETE V. DOMENICI
UNITED STATES SENATOR
National Academy of Engineering
National Meeting Symposium
February 9, 2001
I want to thank the National Academy of Engineering for convening this
Symposium on such an important topic and my good friend, Chuck Vest, for
asking me to participate today. Unfortunately, with the Senate in session
today, there is just no way that I can join you.
Your subject today, "Nuclear Power: The Option for the 21st Century?" sounds
very much like the national dialogue that I called for in my speech at
Harvard in October of 1997. In that talk, I called for a national
evaluation of the role of nuclear energy and nuclear technologies. I sought
to stimulate an informed discussion on the vast benefits of nuclear
technologies - benefits that all too few of our citizens understand or
appreciate. Above all, I stated that the nation must preserve the option of
utilizing nuclear energy to meet the energy demands of future generations.
Since the Harvard speech, I've participated in countless interactions with
government, industry and university groups on these subjects. There have
been a number of successful legislative initiatives that are starting to
offer real hope for a solid future for nuclear power.
The number of my Senate colleagues who appreciate the benefits of nuclear
technologies has grown steadily and significantly. Perhaps this is best
indicated by the large margins approving last year's Bill setting up an
early receipt facility in Nevada for spent nuclear fuel and the subsequent
razor-thin failure, by one slim vote, to override President Clinton's veto
of the Bill.
You're holding this meeting in California, which is an interesting choice.
Californians are not surprised to be in national headlines, but I'm sure the
latest sets of headlines have not been welcomed here or anywhere else. The
whole nation has watched with fascination and despair while the splendid
economic engine of this State, which, if compared to nations around the
world, represents the sixth largest economy, has sputtered on empty for
weeks on end with no relief in sight.
Many experts are now analyzing the energy woes of California. This crisis
is already leading to increasing debate on national energy policy, or our
past lack of it, in Congress. It's evident that in an unfortunate number
of ways, the California so-called "deregulation" was designed to fail
spectactularly, which indeed it has done. There are many reasons, but
certainly one was a focus on ultra-strict environmental restrictions that
severely undercut California's ability to develop new generating capacity.
Even before President Bush was sworn in, I suggested to him that he create a
cabinet-level energy policy board. I'm very pleased that he quickly
announced creation of this entity.
I noted to him that any suggestion that the Department of Energy controls
energy policy for the nation is out of touch with reality. Other agencies
play major roles. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency has
roles in everything from radiation standards to particulate emission
standards and can block progress on energy resources irrespective of
economic imperatives. The Department of Interior has thoroughly
demonstrated its ability to block exploration for new fossil fuel resources;
their policies contribute to sky-high and climbing prices for natural gas.
I look to this new Energy Policy Development Group, chaired by the Vice
President, to evaluate policies of each agency for impacts on national
The California energy crisis may provide encouragement to Congress to move
ahead with improved energy policies, and I'm optimistic that nuclear energy
will be one of the areas of emphasis. Senator Murkowski is now working on a
National Energy Strategy Bill, which includes a number of provisions
supportive of nuclear energy. I'm working on a major bill, focused
exclusively on nuclear energy issues. Later in this talk I'll give you a
brief flavor of my legislation.
For now, though, let me turn to discussion of some of the progress we've
made in the three years since the Harvard speech. That speech occurred
around the time of the Kyoto meeting. At Kyoto, we witnessed an amazing
affair in which the Administration talked about the risks of global warming
without ever noting that the present nuclear plants avoid increased risks or
that increased use of nuclear energy could reduce those risks. I've said
many times that we will not meet the Kyoto goals without maintaining nuclear
energy as a strong option for our energy needs.
Unfortunately, that Administration was determined to undermine support for
nuclear technologies. There was no enthusiasm for a rebirth of a nuclear
industry and nuclear engineering programs were ending across the nation.
There's been real progress in these three years, although certainly most of
it was accomplished by Congress and not the Administration. Now there's the
Nuclear Energy Research Initiative, designed to foster serious study of
nuclear topics. Funding for this effort increased by more than 50 percent
this year. There's a Nuclear Energy Plant Optimization program, exploring
approaches to extend the lifetimes of existing plants.
This year marks the start of the Nuclear Energy Technology Program, a $7.5
million effort to seriously explore specific areas of technology that can
impact the market for new plants. Most of these funds are dedicated to
studying Generation IV reactors - reactors that would:
. be cost competitive with other energy sources,
. have no possibility of core meltdown,
. minimize proliferation concerns, and
. reduce production of high level waste.
Building on this Generation IV program, I'm very optimistic that in the next
few years we will witness construction of a new reactor, perhaps to serve as
a demonstration testbed for new technologies. I've been watching with great
interest the progress in South Africa on their Pebble Bed reactor project.
Not too many years ago, the thought of new reactor construction in the U.S.
would have been a pipedream - but I've heard Corbin McNeil say recently that
it isn't impossible today.
Changes at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission helped immensely with the
rebirth of interest in nuclear plants, leading to dramatically increased
optimism about the future of the industry. It has changed from an agency
that took forever studying an issue to one committed to focused action. The
licenses of five reactors have now been extended by the NRC; and it stuck to
tough schedules in completing those actions. Both the NRC and Congress
deserve credit for these changes.
The Harvard speech noted the close interplay between civilian and military
programs. We simply won't realize the potential of civilian nuclear energy
if the military aspects of nuclear technologies aren't carefully controlled.
Justified public concerns with military uses of nuclear technologies can, if
not carefully addressed, completely poison public perception of the civilian
benefits from nuclear energy. Thus, our non-proliferation programs with
Russia are critical for the future of nuclear energy, to say nothing of
their importance to our national security.
These cooperative programs with Russia are highly challenging; they face
immense difficulties. Nevertheless, programs like:
. Materials Protection, Control, and Accounting;
. Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention;
. the Highly Enriched Uranium Agreement; and
. plutonium disposition
are all making real progress. The Nuclear Cities Initiative received a
significant funding boost this year, along with strong guidance that future
funding will be conditioned on progress against measurable milestones.
These non-proliferation programs are a critical investment in our national
security, and I've strongly championed them. But I also asked, without
success, the past Administration to improve its coordination of these
programs. A national coordinator was part of the Nunn-Lugar-Domenici
legislation in 1996 and it was emphasized again in the current Defense
Authorization legislation. Congress would have more confidence in these
programs and in their cost efficiency if their coordination were
dramatically improved. Most importantly, the effectiveness of these
programs would be enhanced with careful coordination.
You may have noted the strong support for these non-proliferation activities
from the Bush Administration. For example, Condoleezza Rice, the new
National Security Advisor, recently noted that:
American security is threatened less by Russia's strength than by its
weakness and incoherence. This suggests immediate attention to the safety
and security of Moscow's nuclear forces and stockpile.
There is more encouragement for the non-proliferation programs from the
recent Baker-Cutler Report. That Report noted: Russia's nuclear stockpile
is the most serious national security threat we face today.
I'm looking forward to working with the new Administration on these critical
In the civilian area, there are two overarching issues that frame the debate
on nuclear energy issues. One involves radiation standards and the public's
fears of radiation. The other involves demonstration of a credible national
strategy for spent nuclear fuel. These are the two areas frequently
highlighted by anti-nuclear groups. Unfortunately, these groups don't
invest much, if any, time in working to address these issues with credible
solutions, so that the benefits of nuclear technologies can remain available
We still use radiation standards that are based on questionable scientific
knowledge. In June, responding to my request, the GAO issued a study of
this issue, highlighting the lack of scientific data on which current
standards are based and the immense costs that we may be incurring by using
highly conservative standards. That report also highlighted the serious
impact in cost and uncertainty caused by conflicting guidance from the EPA
and the NRC in radiation standards - a conflict made all the more
frustrating since the National Academy has weighed in with strong statements
questioning the scientific credibility of the EPA draft standards for Yucca
Mountain. This is precisely the type of conflict between agencies that I
hope can be addressed with the President's initiative creating the
Cabinet-level energy policy group.
To address the issues highlighted in the GAO report, Congress created a
research program focused on the health effects of low doses of radiation.
This program within the Department of Energy is designed to explore, for the
first time, the molecular and cellular bases for radiation standards. It is
now entering its third year. I've been surprised that this program has not
received appropriate levels of support from the past Administration, and
there's been no evidence of EPA interest in its progress. Fortunately,
Congress stepped in to provide the necessary resources.
This low-dose, radiation effects program offers our best hope for increased
scientific understanding on which better standards eventually can be based.
I might note that just recently I became aware of a parallel, and even
larger, program underway in France. Since then I proposed actions to ensure
that these two major programs are coordinated at the governmental level, and
I understand that this coordination is taking shape now.
Perhaps the most frustrating area of challenge for future use of nuclear
energy involves our lack of credible strategies to deal with spent fuel. I'
ve stated repeatedly that I believe the barriers to progress in this area
are entirely political, and not technical. This is one area that I fear
could doom our nation's prospects for future use of nuclear energy if we don
't make progress. We continue to focus on Yucca Mountain as a permanent
repository, despite the fact that it is not even obvious that long term
disposal is in the best interests of all our citizens.
Depending on our future demands and options for electricity, we may need to
recover the tremendous energy that remains in spent fuel. Furthermore,
strong public opposition to disposal of spent fuel, with its long-term
radiotoxicity, may preclude use of repositories that simply accept and
permanently store spent fuel rods.
For these reasons, I've favored the use of centralized storage for a period
of time in a carefully monitored, fully retrievable, configuration. At a
minimum, this type of storage could allow concentration of the spent fuel
from its 70 plus locations around the country into one or more centralized,
tightly controlled storage areas. Such a monitored storage facility can
allow future generations to evaluate their own needs for energy and decide
on appropriate reuse of spent fuel or final disposition. In a very real
sense, a centralized monitored retrievable storage facility for spent
nuclear fuel represents a national nuclear fuel reserve for future
Congress has worked very hard to make progress on the spent fuel issues. As
I mentioned earlier, last year, a Bill passed both Houses of Congress by
large margins that created an "early receipt facility" in Nevada; it also
would have created an Office within the Department to seriously evaluate
strategies for spent fuel. The vote for passage was 253-167, a veto-proof
majority, in the House and 64-34 in the Senate - those are both impressive
margins. Unfortunately, President Clinton vetoed this bill, and the veto
override vote failed in the Senate by a single vote.
Despite that veto, Congress has still created opportunities for progress on
spent fuel strategies by funding transmutation research. This year, $34
million are set aside for an Advanced Accelerator Applications, or AAA,
program, which includes waste transmutation.
Transmutation, as part of an integrated national or international strategy
for spent fuel, could dramatically alter the radiotoxicity of spent fuel and
allow recovery of much of the residual energy. There's tremendous
international interest in transmutation, and the new AAA program encourages
cooperative programs. I've been assured that transmutation is technically
feasible; now we need solid research and engineering results to provide a
basis for assessing all the issues associated with its economic,
environmental, and proliferation impacts.
I'm very hopeful that the new Administration will encourage serious work on
spent fuel strategies, including transmutation. The future of nuclear
energy requires that we demonstrate to the public that scientifically sound
solutions for spent fuel exist. We need to do the research today that can
allow tomorrow's leaders to decide whether some forms of reprocessing and
transmutation can lead to reduced risks and enhanced benefits from nuclear
I mentioned earlier that at least several major legislative packages are
under development. The National Energy Strategy Bill of Senator Murkowski
is a very broad piece of legislation encompassing all forms of energy. It
will be a major contribution toward a coherent energy policy for the nation.
In addition, I'm hard at work on a Bill that focuses specifically on the
nuclear energy side of the issue. Both Bills establish an Office within
the Department of Energy to develop and coordinate strategies for spent
It's too early to discuss specifics of my Bill, but let me note that it
treats nuclear energy issues in five broad areas:
. Assuring a continued supply of nuclear energy,
. Encouraging construction of new nuclear power plants,
. Treating nuclear energy on a level playing field with other energy
. Identifying solutions for spent fuel, and
. Further streamlining the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Before closing, I'd like to mention one additional subject which should be
included in your discussions about energy policy. It involves the
increasing globalization of the world's economies. I don't believe that the
world can develop in the peace and harmony that we all want unless the large
differences between the "have" and "have-not" nations are addressed.
The standards of living for billions of people lag the Western world by
extremely large factors. Reliable sources of electricity underpin the
economies of the developed world. They are one of the factors determining
each nation's standard of living and are certainly one of the prerequisites
for modernization in all developing nations. As you are well aware, there
is now a vast gulf in energy usage per capita between Western nations,
especially the United States, and the developing world.
I firmly believe that globalization offers immense benefits to the American
people. We benefit from a network of global trading partners. These
partners help create markets for our high technology products. But this
will happen only if the rest of the world increases its standards of living
to levels that closely match our own. And that won't happen unless they
have access to clean, reliable, low cost sources of electrical power.
Nuclear energy, appropriately designed to avoid proliferation concerns and
operate in absolute safety, can play a major role in energizing the rest of
the world. It can be one of the solutions to providing global energy needs
and helping to bring many of the poorer economies into the 21st century.
In closing, let me emphasize that all of us need to remind the public that
the standard of living we enjoy today would be lost without reliable, clean,
cost- effective electricity. It enables countless technologies, from the
computers we use today, to the washing machines that have replaced old
And as we remind the public of the importance of supplies of electricity,
two words must be part of every discussion on energy alternatives: risks and
benefits. No energy source is free of both. Anti-nuclear groups have
focused only on the risks involved with nuclear. They don't discuss its
benefits, or discuss the solid technical solutions for the risks.
Unfortunately, their actions do not present a balanced public understanding
of this complex issue. The National Academy of Engineering is very well
positioned to advance precisely such discussions.
We need to seize opportunities to note that energy production, by any
technology, represents a trade-off between risks and benefits. The public
must have the information to fairly judge both sides of this equation for
each type of energy source. With that kind of comparison, which you and
your colleagues can help to frame, nuclear energy fares very well. From
this debate, and from continued progress on many fronts, I believe that
nuclear energy will play an increasing role in future domestic and global