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New Bill Tackles Economy, Energy, Climate Change

As our country works its way through the ongoing economic crisis, there has been strong debate over the most appropriate ways for the Congress to address both our energy needs and the specter of climate change. We have introduced legislation that we believe would address all three of these challenges. The Clean Energy Act of 2009 would dramatically increase our nation’s energy output and measurably decrease carbon dioxide emissions, and do so at an overall 10-year cost of no more than $20 billion.

The United States consumes one-quarter of the world’s energy. Despite this staggering figure, the Energy Information Administration forecasts that electricity demands in our country will increase by 22 percent over the next 20 years. Concurrent with this increase in demand, the challenges posed by climate change are at present being addressed through an enormously complex and costly legislative proposal for government mandates, higher taxes and usage fees, a cap-and-trade exchange system marked by byzantine rules for offsets and adjustments, and the prospect of a much-increased government bureaucracy.

But addressing our energy needs while tackling climate change need not be so costly, nor should these two challenges be mutually exclusive. The solution to energy security requires being smarter about the way we consume energy. We can reduce consumption by increasing basic efficiencies and creating a smarter electrical transmission grid. We should also employ sensible strategies that develop and implement renewable technologies, particularly in parts of the nation that enjoy abundant sunshine or wind power. And as we do this, we should also develop and improve energy storage technologies that can address the intermittent nature of power derived from wind and the sun.

Concurrently with these forward-looking approaches to alternate energy production, we should also put into place the financing mechanisms and incentives to jump-start a revival in our nuclear power industry. Our legislation proposes to create the right environment for doubling the production of electricity from nuclear power over the next 20 years. The United States invented nuclear power technology. Although our country has not started a nuclear power plant in 30 years, today, 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity and 19 percent of our total electricity come from nuclear reactors.

For the energy independence of our country and for the health of our economy, these percentages should logically be much higher.

Nuclear power is carbon-free. Our scientists and technicians in this industry are the best in the world. Technologies associated with the industry and also with the disposition of nuclear waste have improved dramatically over the past decade. And other countries have figured this out. The Chinese are undergoing a major expansion of their nuclear fleet. The Japanese build new reactors from start to finish in less than four years. France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and has among the lowest electric rates and carbon emissions in Western Europe. Russia plans to double its nuclear power capacity. The United Arab Emirates is planning eight reactors. And just recently, the United Kingdom announced it would build 10 new plants.

An equally important part of our legislation is to establish five “mini-Manhattan Projects— for the advancement of other clean energy technologies. As with the original Manhattan Project during World War II, which resulted in the development of nuclear technology, these projects would be designed to encourage creative scientific thought and research to advance the development of solar, battery, clean coal, biofuels and nuclear waste programs. And as a corollary to the development of new nuclear power facilities, our legislation also funds educational programs to train the greatly expanded workforce that would be required to operate the power plants as they come on line.

The total cost of this legislation, which uses federal loan guarantees instead of direct financing, is estimated at no more than $20 billion over a 10-year period.

This concept may sound too simple and too good to be true, but it is measurable, achievable, and could be of great benefit to the country. We invite our colleagues to examine it and to support us as we seek to help solve the demands of energy production and protection of the climate, while minimizing cost.

Our legislation proposes:

1. Loan guarantees — $10 billion authorization that can leverage up to $100 billion in government-backed loans for the development of clean, carbon-free energy to bring in investors and project developers to jump-start efforts that are otherwise too capital-intensive up front.

2. Nuclear workforce — $100 million per year for 10 years toward nuclear education and training. The nuclear revival cannot take place without a workforce and for that reason the bill provides much-needed support to educate and train craftsmen, engineers, operators and other workers.

3. New reactor designs — $200 million per year for five years for a cost-sharing mechanism between government and industry to enable the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to review new nuclear reactor designs such as small and medium reactors and help bring those technologies from concept into the marketplace.

4. More power from existing reactors — $50 million per year for 10 years for much-needed research to extend the lifetime of our current nuclear fleet and maximize the production of low-cost nuclear power. Longer lifetimes and increased efficiency for our existing 104 reactors could equal the production of 20 to 30 new reactors.

5. Five new “mini-Manhattan Projects— for clean energy — $750 million per year for 10 years for research and development of carbon capture from coal plants, technologies to make solar power more cost-competitive, improvement of batteries for electric cars, advanced biofuels (other than ethanol) from crops that we don’t eat, and development of means to mitigate and manage nuclear waste. Each of these will be funded at $150 million annually.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) is a former secretary of Education; Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) is a former secretary of the Navy.

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