WASHINGTON – When it comes to alternative energy, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander prefers nuclear plants over windmills.
Nuclear power, he says, is clean, cheap and dependable. Wind power, he argues, is unreliable and doesn’t produce a lot of energy. Besides, he says, wind turbines are ugly.
If Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, didn’t already know that about Tennessee’s senior senator, she does now.
Alexander took McCarthy to task last week because the Obama administration is treating nuclear power differently – and in his view, a bit unfairly – than wind and solar energy in its proposed rules to cut carbon emissions.
“Sixty percent of the country’s carbon-free electricity, emission-free electricity, comes from nuclear power,” Alexander told McCarthy during a budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment. “Wind produces 13 percent. Solar produces 1 percent.
“If you’re really serious about climate change, if you’re really serious about clean air, then why would you disadvantage nuclear power and treat wind and solar better?”
Alexander, who has called for the construction of more nuclear plants, is upset that Tennessee will have to make a 38.9 percent cut in carbon emissions under the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan – but won’t get credit for meeting emissions standards through the new Watts Bar nuclear reactor near Spring City, Tenn.
The reason: Under the administration’s proposal, the EPA will let states take 100 percent of their existing solar and wind generation and credit it toward the emissions reduction goals regulators have set for them. But only 6 percent of states’ existing nuclear generation can count toward those goals.
In addition, Tennessee and other states where new nuclear plants already are under construction are given higher reduction targets because power from those plants is already counted as on the books.
“We get credit for all of the existing windmills and solar panels we have, which don’t amount to much – not only in our state but anywhere else – but we get credit for 6 percent of the nuclear power generation,” Alexander complained. “And you don’t count, for example, the new Watts Bar reactor that is coming on, which is 1200 megawatts of absolutely clean electricity.”
Tennessee is doing “a terrific job of making agreements with the EPA, cleaning up the coal plants, building nuclear plants, having hydro plants,” Alexander said, yet it is “being penalized because you’re preferring wind and solar – which produce little – over nuclear, which produces a lot of what we want.”
“It’s the energy equivalent of going to war in sailboats when the nuclear navy is available,” Alexander said, pulling out a line that he uses often to describe the inconsistency.
“I like the analogy,” McCarthy said, smiling.
She told Alexander the EPA was aware of the discrepancy.
“We are really looking at that,” she said.
On another topic, McCarthy promised Alexander the EPA would quickly review Tennessee’s applications to declare Knox, Blount and Anderson counties in compliance with federal air-pollution standards.
The counties submitted their application last November, one of the final steps in East Tennessee’s yearslong campaign to bring the region’s air in compliance with federal standards. If approved, the clean-air designation could make it easier to recruit new business and industry to the region.
The Obama administration has taken the final step toward putting in place the first-ever federal regulations for the storage of ash from coal-fired power plants.
The new rules were published April 20 in the Federal Register. That means they are now official and will take effect on Oct. 19, six months after the publication date. Parties wanting to challenge the rules have 90 days to initiate their claims.
The rules, announced last December, will regulate coal ash as household garbage instead of as a hazardous material. They will put in place engineering and structural standards and will require other safeguards such as liners for new and existing coal-ash storage ponds. States will be required to adopt the federal standards as minimum requirements.
The new regulations were triggered by the catastrophic coal-ash spill at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County in 2008, which damaged nearby homes and property and necessitated a cleanup costing more than $1 billion.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, well-known for his advocacy of reforming federal drug laws, made his case last Wednesday to a like-minded audience: the Marijuana Policy Project, which is working to change federal law so states can set their own pot policies.
Cohen, D-Memphis, spoke at the organization’s 20th anniversary gala in Washington. Cohen told the group a bill he is pushing to let states set their own marijuana policies is gaining momentum and has 16 co-sponsors – eight Democrats, eight Republicans – in the House.
“Drug policy reform is long overdue,” Cohen said. “The science has been in for a long time, and keeping marijuana on the same list of the most dangerous controlled substances – along with heroin and LSD – doesn’t make any sense.”
Cohen and two other House members also reintroduced legislation last week aimed at protecting college students from deceitful practices and bad actors in the for-profit college industry, which is under fire for offering questionable degrees, burdening students with heavy debt and taking in billions of dollars in federal money every year.
The bill would put in place protections for students and taxpayers and would require that for-profit institutions get at least 15 percent of their revenue from nonfederal student aid. The measure’s other sponsors are U.S. Reps. Mark Takano and Susan Davis, both California Democrats.
Big bonuses may be coming to an end for employees in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs office responsible for the planning, design and construction of the agency’s major construction projects.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, managed to persuade the House to pass an amendment that would stop performance bonuses for the VA Office of Construction and Facility Management amid reports that it wasted billions of taxpayer dollars and delayed at least four projects a total of 14 years.
“If this is the performance we should expect, the VA really has no business being in the construction industry,” Roe said. “Further, these employees should not receive performance bonuses. This amendment will ensure taxpayers do not pay for performance bonuses for an office that has caused more harm than good.”
Roe’s amendment was attached to a $76.6 billion bill to fund military construction and the VA for the coming year. The House passed the amended funding bill on Thursday on a vote of 255-163.
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