While nuclear energy may not be a central campaign issue for Sen. Bob Bennett as he seeks re-election in 2010, the three-term Republican lit up a group of university professors Friday when he voiced support for nuclear power development.
"Every study I've seen says that under the best of circumstances, solar and wind will never produce more than a single-digit percentage of the energy that we need," Bennett told about 30 professors from across the country who had gathered for a two-day Nuclear Energy University Programs workshop.
To maintain the American economy, affordable and accessible energy is needed, Bennett said.
"Nuclear is the only one that has the capacity to give you the scale that you need," Bennett continued. "We have the potential in this country to build enough nuclear facilities to require two or three reprocessing plants," -- France and Britain currently have such facilities.
But reprocessing doesn't solve the problem of what to do with radioactive leftovers, critics note. It just changes the waste, which currently is piling up in dry cask storage at 120 sites in 39 states, into liquid form and plutonium.
Bennett believes that America, at present, lacks the will to go nuclear.
"The political attitudes against reprocessing, against anything nuclear, are still pretty high in the U.S.," Bennett said.
He credits Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the 1979 movie "The China Syndrome" with shaping that mindset.
The environmental watchdog group, HEAL Utah, questioned Bennett's logic.
"Dismissing the vast potential of renewable energy while offering to throw our resources down the nuclear rabbit hole is not sound energy policy," said HEAL spokesman Eric Spreng.
Spreng also decried the cost and waste associated with nuclear power, noting that reprocessing takes years and yields liquid radioactive waste and weapons-grade plutonium.
"France has over 80 tons of plutonium that they can't get rid of," Spreng added.
Bennett helped secure $43 million in nuclear research funding for universities nationwide, of which Utah State University received $500,000 for 2009.
"Senator Bennett has been instrumental in funding USU research, particularly in areas of energy, water, agriculture, education, and defense," said USU President Stan Albrecht.
"Without Senator Bennett and his position on the Appropriations Committee," Albrecht added, "these educational and economic opportunities would be set back at least a decade."
According to opensecrets.org, Bennett's top campaign donor, EnergySolutions Inc., contributed $46,900 to the Senator's 2010 race.
The Utah-based company provides nuclear services around the world, including cleanup, processing and disposal. It also operates a low-level radioactive waste landfill in Tooele County.