WASHINGTON (CN) - The fate of the nation's aging nuclear power plants must be addressed if the United States wants to ensure the viability of the source of 60 percent of its carbon-free energy, an adviser to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a Senate committee on Wednesday.
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Dr. John Deutch, M.I.T professor and chair of the secretary of energy's advisory board, urged senators to evaluate both the integrity and environmental benefits of nuclear power plants in the United States, as well as the potential crisis if the energy behemoths age out into disrepair.
"If the U.S. doesn't renew operational licenses, then nuclear power won't be available by 2030," Deutch said. "If we don't take a practical position and we don't all agree on this, there's no possibility of nuclear power and whether or not it can all be done with cleaner power depends very heavily on how the grid develops."
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R.-Tennessee, who chairs the committee, agreed.
"Many Americans say climate change is a threat and humans are a significant cause of that threat," he said. "If I had 20 fire marshals of repute telling me my house is burning down, I might get fire insurance. There's no sense in closing nuclear reactors at a time when climate change is a problem," Alexander said.
The senator said within the next 15 to 20 years, 50 reactors, representing just under half of the country's nuclear energy capacity, will have reached 60 years of continual operation.
Last month, the Ft. Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska closed due to degraded conditions inside the reactor and maintenance expenses approaching billions of dollars.
Eight other reactors are scheduled to be shut down within the next five to seven years.
"Shutting down eight reactors, plus the recent closure at Ft. Calhoun, will result in a 3 percent increase in carbon emissions," Alexander warned.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, was not convinced that nuclear power is as clean or safe in the long term as other technologies harnessing renewable energy sources and hammered the point home to her fellow senators.
"Some may claim the future is bright for this technology but I suggest otherwise," she said.
Feinstein then quoted U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, a pioneer in naval nuclear propulsion, who said of nuclear plants, "They are expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of minor malfunctions and difficult and time-consuming to repair."
For the California senator, whose constituency already faces a growing number of climate-change concerns, the issue of expanding or retaining nuclear power facilities ultimately falls back upon the issue of waste management.
"This congress has not yet grappled with the need to find a real solution to nuclear waste. The bottom line is that the existing fleet of reactors has generated 770,000 metric tons of radioactive spent fuel and that amount grows by 22 tons per year," she said.
Bailing on license renewals , focusing on safe decommissioning efforts and investing in other equally clean energy resources seemed a more prudent path to the senator.
"Even if some day, advanced reactor designs are more efficient, a future built on nuclear power is still impossible if we don't have a solution for dealing with existing waste," Feinstein said.
While spent fuel rods have been transported to Yucca Mountain in Nevada for years, there is no permanent nuclear waste removal facility in the country.
Feinstein reminded Deutch that in California alone, space inside other temporary nuclear waste storage facilities is running out, with fuel rods squeezed tightly into cooling pools which sit on land that is prone to earthquakes.
Deutch suggested to the committee that a "quasi-corporate" entity, which combined funding, planning, and resources from private enterprise and the federal government, may ultimately be the best path toward finding a workable solution to the waste and to the upkeep of aging plants.
Feinstein agreed, saying that the committee's many years of stalemate over funding issues specific to nuclear energy had left members at an impasse. Funding other programs for renewable energy research has been a top priority for the committee, she said, but with examples like the Monju nuclear plant in Japan looming in recent history, the numbers just haven't added up.
"The Monju, a fast breeder reactor in Japan, operated for four months before a coolant leak caused a fire. Then in 2010, it closed again. After spending $12 billion, the Japanese government decided last month to abandon the project altogether," she said.
Feinstein also warned that it was only a matter of time before "some kind of Fukushima" happens on U.S. soil.
Deutch pushed back and reminded the committee that his own organization has spent the last four years developing solutions to process waste and improve plant conditions.
But Feinstein said she had seen three different energy committee chairs come and go without a solution ever being found.
"I listen to this and it's like I'm in a fairytale when what I see in my state is four of the biggest reactors shut down, waste piling up and it makes no sense to me," she said.
Instead, she argued, the waste policy Deutch's task force has worked up, languishes before the committee, "while the nuclear waste industry does nothing to help pass it."
"I don't understand it," she added. "It's madness to build and not be able to get rid of the waste."
Deutch leaned into the microphone and looked at the committee squarely.
"Just pass it," he said.
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