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Author: Pete V. Domenici
The subject of this symposium, "Nuclear Power: The Option for the 21st Century?" is very much like the subject of the national dialogue I called for in a speech I delivered at Harvard in October 1997. In that talk, I called for a national evaluation of the role of nuclear energy and nuclear technologies. I hoped to stimulate an informed discussion on the vast benefits of nuclear technologies--benefits that too few Americans understand or appreciate. Above all, I stated that the nation must preserve the option of using 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, and a number of successful legislative initiatives have been undertaken that offer real hope for a solid future for nuclear power.
The number of my colleagues in the Senate who appreciate the benefits of nuclear technologies is growing steadily and significantly. Perhaps the best indication of this is the large margin of approval for a bill introduced in 2000 to establish an early receipt facility in Nevada for spent nuclear fuel. President Clinton vetoed the bill, and the Senate subsequently tried to override the veto but failed by a margin of one vote.
Your selection of California for the site of this meeting is interesting. Californians are often in national headlines, but I’m sure the latest headlines have not been welcome there or anywhere else. The whole nation has watched with fascination and despair as California’s splendid economic engine, which represents the sixth largest economy in the world, is sputtering, with no relief in sight. Many experts are now analyzing California’s energy woes, and the crisis is already sparking a congressional debate on national energy policy, or our past lack of one. It’s become evident that in a number of ways California’s so-called "deregulation" was designed to fail spectacularly, which indeed it has done. There are many reasons for this failure, including ultrastrict 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, and I’m very pleased that he quickly announced the creation of this entity. I noted to him that the assumption that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) controls energy policy is out of touch with reality. In fact, other agencies play major roles. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is involved in setting standards for everything from emissions of radiation to particulates and can block progress on energy resources regardless of the economic imperatives. The U.S. Department of Interior has demonstrated its ability to block exploration for new fossil fuel resources with policies that have contributed to sky-high and climbing prices for natural gas. I look to the new Energy Policy Development Group, chaired by Vice President Cheney, to evaluate the policies of each agency for their impact on national energy security.
The California energy crisis may encourage Congress to move ahead with improved energy policies, and I’m optimistic that nuclear energy will be one area of emphasis. Senator Murkowski (R., Alaska) is now working on a National Energy Strategy Bill that 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’l1 give you a brief overview of my legislation.
But first, I’d like to discuss the progress we’ve made in the three years since the Harvard speech, which was given around the time of the Kyoto meeting. At that conference, the Clinton administration talked about the risks of global warming but did not note that present nuclear plants do not increase those risks or that increasing the use of nuclear energy could reduce them. I’ve said many times that we will not be able to meet the Kyoto goals without maintaining nuclear energy as a strong option for meeting our energy needs. Unfortunately, the Clinton administration was determined to undermine support for nuclear technologies. There was no enthusiasm for a rebirth of the nuclear industry, and nuclear engineering programs across the nation were allowed to deteriorate.
Real progress has been made in these three years, mostly by Congress. The Nuclear Energy Research Initiative was established to encourage serious studies of nuclear topics. Funding for this initiative increased by more than 50 percent this year (2000). A nuclear energy plant optimization program has also been initiated to explore ways to extend the lifetimes of existing plants.
This year also marks the start of the Nuclear Energy Technology Program, a $7.5 million effort to explore specific areas of technology that can impact the market for new nuclear power plants. Most of the funds are dedicated to studying Generation IV reactors, which would: