DOE should act quickly to support the American Centrifuge project

September 2, 2009

DOE should act quickly to support the American Centrifuge project
An Editorial from Senator Randy McNally

September 2, 2009 — For decades, Tennessee has been on the cutting edge in developing America’s most needed energy technologies.   In fact, the best scientific minds in the world come to Tennessee to work on advancing these technologies at our world-class facility in Oak Ridge.

Promoting innovative American technologies, creating good-paying American jobs and reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy shouldn’t just be goals — they should be fundamental ways of life for our state and our country!  Our Legislature has made great strides over the past few years in incorporating those goals in how we do business in Tennessee, including approval of a Solar Energy Institute this year.

We are focused on these priorities, not just because they sound good, but because they will help lead Tennessee and this nation out of our current economic situation.  We must look to the future and make sure we are building a strong foundation to meet the energy demands and regulatory challenges we now face in a new era.

Clearly, alternative energies like wind and solar will play an important role, particularly in certain areas of the country where they are most successful.  However, it is critical in to our economy and America’s energy future, that we look at the mix of energy sources that will help us achieve independence from foreign sources.  Nuclear energy, which is
clean and efficient, is a very important part of that mix.

Tennessee’s position as a global leader in nuclear energy is a legacy that we take very seriously.  The American Centrifuge technology was born of Department of Environment (DOE) research in Tennessee at Oak Ridge. However, due to the moratorium on new nuclear reactor construction in the in 1970’s and 80’s, we slowly lost our technological advantage in this area to foreign competitors.  Over the past decade, significant steps have been made to reverse this dangerous trend.  Recently, we’ve been developing the world’s most effective and efficient system for enriching uranium to provide fuel for nuclear power plants.

Many of the Oak Ridge National Lab retirees who previously worked on the lab’s centrifuge program have been called back into action, some after many years of retirement, to finish what they started.  Young and old have worked side by side on this project, sharing important knowledge. It is called the American Centrifuge Project, and when it goes into operation, it will help the U.S. produce fuel to power its nuclear needs far into the future.

It will ensure that our nuclear future is built on a solid foundation so we are not dependent on other countries to provide us with vital energy resources.  It will also ensure that the U.S. and Tennessee remains a world technological leader.

Unfortunately, the project has been slowed by the federal government’s failure to approve an essential Loan Guarantee needed for the project.  A U.S. company, USEC Inc. is working in Oak Ridge to revitalize DOE’s technology, improve it and put it to work in the first U.S. owned and operated uranium enrichment facility in half a century.

The immediate effect of this decision is the potential loss of over 1,500 Tennessee jobs.  However, the long term effect is much more daunting as we seek energy independence.  If DOE can’t support its own technology, our companies and manufacturers are left to wonder if they should be investing in any nuclear projects at all.  All of this takes place almost in the shadow of where the Tennessee Valley Authority is building a new nuclear reactor at Watts Barr.

After many years of sporadic support for advancing nuclear energy technology, the American Centrifuge Project has placed Oak Ridge and Tennessee back in the middle of our nation’s energy future.  The American Centrifuge project is one of those key opportunities where we can promote innovative American technologies, while creating good-paying jobs and reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy all at once.  We need the DOE to act quickly to support this project.

Randy McNally
Chairman, Senate Finance Committee
Tennessee State Senate

NOTE:  Senator McNally (R-Oak Ridge) represents District 5 in the Tennessee State Senate

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