Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate Republican Conference, has supported basic energy research, strengthening U.S. research universities to make U.S. students more competitive, and the mission of the Department of Energy's national laboratories, like Tennessee's Oak Ridge. On climate change, Alexander has been the Senate's biggest advocate of nuclear power, calling for the construction of 100 nuclear power plants in the next 2 decades. But he's leery of an economy-wide emissions-reduction scheme and considered a long shot to support a cap-and-trade measure.
In an interview with Eli Kintisch of ScienceInsider, Alexander advocated for his beloved nuclear power, explained why he felt that emissions caps would be so expensive, and reminded President Barack Obama that the U.S. Senate "has to confirm treaties"--a subtle but clear message that the president should not promise more than the U.S. Senate can deliver.
Q: For the people of Tennessee, how serious is the problem of global warming?
L.A.: Long term, it's a problem. On the shorter term, the more serious problem is clean air. Senator [Tom] Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, and I will be introducing legislation to substantially reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air, all of which we know how to do and which we should get on with doing both for our health and our state. It affects the Great Smoky Mountain[s] National Park, which is the most visited national park in America. So clean air is more important to us. The pollutants that matter to us most are sulfur and nitrogen and mercury, not carbon.
Q: What did you mean when you said that it's a long-term problem?
L.A.: Well, long term, every solution to carbon is a long-term solution. No one has suggested a short-term one. And no one has really suggested many that will make much difference in the long term. Plus, this is a new issue for most Tennesseans, as I'm sure it is for most Americans, though there are a few people that have been worrying about carbon's affect on the planet and human's role in that. But that's relatively new. So we've learned about the sulfur, nitrogen, and mercury pollution. We've learned about carbon, and we're trying to assess the right way to deal with it. And we're going to deal with it in a way that we can afford. If you were to ask the people of Tennessee, the first three pollutants are more important than carbon.
Q: Among the other strong supporters of nuclear power in the Senate is Lindsey Graham [R-SC]. He recently made it clear in The New York Times that part of the solution to this problem is to provide major incentives for nuclear power. Why not join that initiative?
L.A.: Because I don't believe that an economy-wide cap and trade is effective, nor do I believe we can afford it. It's really an unworkable contraption. The more that most senators learn about it, the less chance it has of passing the Senate. It's ineffective in the first place because 30% of carbon in the United States comes from fuel, and an economywide cap-and-trade system basically raises the price of fuel but doesn't produce much [reduction in emissions] because it doesn't change human behavior. It [also] will drive jobs overseas looking for cheap energy, especially manufacturing jobs. So I think we need to be looking for solutions that focus on smokestacks and tailpipes and tailor our solutions to emitters or sources of emissions. I don't have any problem with recognizing the problem of carbon or climate change. A number of National Academies scientists, [who] have come to me and said it is a problem, have convinced me. If my house was to burn down, I would buy some fire insurance. The question is what kind of fire insurance.
Q: This recent scandal, these e-mails, does this concern you?
L.A.: It does. It concerns me as someone who believes that climate change is a problem and believes it is a substantial challenge to persuade at least half of Americans that it is important enough to deal with on a fairly urgent basis. When scientists start acting like politicians, they lose that credibility. And in these e-mails, that's what these scientists were doing. And if they want to have approximately the same credibility as members of Congress, then that's where they're going.
In the past, we've relied on scientists [to] tell us the truth and not shade it one way or another. This makes it sound like some of those scientists have been doing that. I think it's very important for scientists themselves to recognize the seriousness of this and clean this up and put it in proper perspective.
Q: On the issue of climate change among Republican lawmakers, there's been a kind of shift. You have Mark Kirk (R), an Illinois lawmaker in the House, who supported the Markey bill; now that he's running for Senate he's moved away from it. You have Governor [Charlie] Crist in Florida moving away from some of his environmental initiatives. Do you think that [confronting] the problem of global warming can be an issue that Republicans can support?
L.A.: There are 40 Republican senators and we have the widest variety of views, which run from some who believe it's a complete hoax to some who believe it's an urgent problem.
Q: Forget about the 60 votes it would need to pass in the Senate. To ratify a treaty you would need 67. That means you would need at least seven Republicans and all the coal-state Democrats.
L.A.: Well, the last time it [the Kyoto treaty] came up and got one vote, so that's where you start. But Republican senators have many different views. I believe that climate change is a problem and that humans are contributing to it. I just disagree that an economywide cap and trade is a solution. One thing that as Republican senators 40 of us have agreed on is to build 100 new nuclear plants in the next 20 years, to create the environment to electrify half our cars and trucks in 20 years, to encourage offshore exploration for natural gas and oil, and to double energy R&D for alternative forms of energy like solar to make it cost competitive. By my own calculations, if we were actually [to] do that, especially double nuclear energy production and electrify half the cars, we would come very close to most of the climate-change goals that most of the bills we see have set.
Q: Obama has put an unprecedented amount of money into energy research and development and deployment with the stimulus package. Do you support that spending?
L.A.: I was a sponsor of the America COMPETES legislation, and I'm glad that the president's funding has gone in that direction. Senator [Jim] Webb [D-VA] and I have suggested spending $750 million per year for 10 years, which is more than the president has recommended, on carbon capture, advanced biofuels, advanced batteries, recycling used nuclear fuel. So the short answer is yes, I think that the two most important things we can do to deal with climate change are to restart nuclear reactors and to make the ones we have more efficient. We can gain a lot of carbon-free electricity. And the second is to have many Manhattan projects on his four, five areas of clean energy. To make them cost competitive and safe and effective. And if we do those two things, we are most likely to reduce carbon that is the principal human-caused source of global warming.
The Administration's current energy policy is a national wind policy, through an unbelievable amount of money subsidizing wind power, and windmills and making it difficult to start nuclear plants, even though nuclear plants produce 70% of our carbon-free electricity. Wind turbines produce about 5%. Our current energy policy is equivalent to going to war in sailboats. If we were going to war, we wouldn't ditch the nuclear Navy and start subsidizing sailboats. We shouldn't start mothballing them and start subsidizing a medieval technology called wind turbines.
Q: What about the argument that we've been subsidizing nuclear power for decades?
L.A.: It's false. Name a subsidy for me?
Q: We look after their waste, we support their research on the front end.
L.A.: The utilities pay for that. Name one.
Q: I don't know.
L.A.: There's a lot of misinformation about nuclear power. There is a new production tax credit for the first 6000 MW of new nuclear power that is produced, but nobody is benefiting from that now. There is a Price-Anderson system set up in the law in case there's an accident, but that's never cost taxpayers a penny. If there were an accident, the first $104 million would have to be paid by the nuclear industry. I asked the EIA [Energy Information Administration] for its estimate of the subsidy costs of the relevant forms of electricity, and most of it was going to wind.
In a simple computation of what it would cost the taxpayers to produce 20% of our electricity from wind, it would be $170 billon in subsidies over 20 years. If it were nuclear, including the nuclear production tax credit, it would be one-tenth of that. So big wind has become the big oil of electricity. And nuclear is just sitting there; we haven't built a new nuclear plant in 30 years. China is starting a new plant every 3 months.
Senator Webb and I have proposed $100 billion of loan guarantees for all sorts of carbon-free electricity including nuclear, solar, wind, and others. There is currently about $18.5 billion of loan guarantees that the energy act of 2007 authorized. But those have never been given out. The thing to remember about loan guarantees is that all of them would be paid back. The production tax credit for wind pays $0.03 per kilowatt hour and seems to go on and on and on.
Q: The Bush Administration funded an aggressive program into recycling nuclear waste, even trying to deploy projects in that area. Obama has scaled that back.
L.A.: Well, he has and he hasn't. I think Energy Secretary [Steven] Chu has been a conspicuously good and effective--I don't want to say spokesman--but he's been particularly effective on the issue of nuclear power and what to do with used nuclear fuel. He has suggested a solution to used nuclear fuel that I think is exactly right. One is, currently we can store the spent fuel rods onsite, safely, for 60 to 80 years, according to Secretary Chu and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Second, he believes if we have an aggressive research program on how to recycle used nuclear fuel in a way that doesn't isolate plutonium and reduces the mass and reduces the long period of time that it's radioactive, that will be very successful, and that will be achieved in the next 20 years. And I think he's right about that. That two-step solution to use nuclear waste permits us to solve that problem and move it off the table.
He's been very good about that and has recommended that one of his innovation hubs include that kind of research, and that's one of the areas that Senator Webb and I suggest spending $150 million a year on. Secretary Chu has also been good on the loan guarantees. He's got more done than President [George W.] Bush was able to do. So I give him credit for those two steps on nuclear power.
Q: You mentioned sulfur dioxide as one of the pollutants you're concerned about, Senator. When the United States moved to regulate this pollutant under a cap-and-trade system in the past under the Environmental Protection Agency, there was a lot of concern that the economic costs would be too great. Why couldn't that happen with carbon as well?
L.A.: The reason is when the acid rain laws passed in 1991 there was a solution called scrubbers and there was an alternative called natural gas which was cheap at the time. And so most utilities bought cheap natural gas and built natural gas plants in the 1990s. So the major effect of cap and trade for sulfur in 1999 was to cause utilities to build natural gas plants instead of new coal plants. Now natural gas itself has emissions with as much carbon as a new coal plant does. The other thing that the law caused utilities to do was to switch to low-sulfur coal, from the west, so those three things caused the cost to go down. So there were alternatives in 1991 for dealing with sulfur without tremendously increasing cost. Today, there is no commercially viable way to do that with carbon from a coal plant.
Q: Senator Graham's idea is
to make nuclear plants the alternative.
But we haven't started building the new plants, and so that's one big difference with 1991. Another difference is that we were only talking about smokestacks then. And now the proponents of economywide cap and trade are talking about affecting manufacturing jobs and fuel. And the third thing [is] we are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Back then we were talking about a few billion dollars a year.
Q: Did Obama make a mistake by saying that he'll go to Copenhagen and put out a number before the Senate acts?
L.A.: There is a custom in the United States Senate that I'm going to follow, which is that you don't criticize your president when he's overseas. There's a custom that I hope he'll follow, which is to remember when he's there that the United States Senate has to confirm treaties.