All four Republican candidates for governor expressed support Wednesday for ramping up nuclear power as part of the state’s energy future in a forum before the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce.
Two Democratic candidates spoke in a separate session with members of the organization prior to the Republicans taking their turn at a downtown Nashville forum Wednesday. The Democrats were not asked about nuclear energy, but they addressed green energy as a vital part of the state’s economic future.
Republicans were asked specifically about coal and nuclear power. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, from Blountville, said the nation took a wrong turn on nuclear energy decades ago.
“One of the worst mistakes we’ve ever made in this country, in the late 1970s, was turning away from nuclear energy,” Ramsey said. “I had a chance to go to work building one of those plants, yet we mothballed that and we’ve gone backward. We need to look at nuclear energy, coal and natural gas. Green energy is all well and good, but it’s going to be a small percentage. We’ve got to know when you turn the light switch on that the lights will come on.”
Ramsey said the state should continue to rely on coal and find the best ways to obtain it.
“We have to rely on good science. I mentioned that before at a forum and got criticized,” Ramsey said. “I’m opposed to mountaintop removal, but at the same time there are ways of getting to that coal, and we need to do it. Alternative fuels are out there but a lot is down the road. We’ve got 100 years of reserves in the ground, and that’s going to help us be energy independent.”
Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam said the approach should be to pursue a policy that includes nuclear power, solar power and wind power.
“But we also need to use less,” Haslam said. “In Knoxville, we looked at our own energy use, not only as good stewards of the environment, but we saved money. As a country, we do have to consider producing more energy domestically.”
Bill Gibbons, Shelby County district attorney general, said a diverse energy policy is needed and said Gov. Phil Bredesen has taken the state in the right direction with energy technology.
“We also need nuclear energy. We’ve got to be realistic about that,” Gibbons said. “It’s a clean source of energy. We’ve got to have that as part of the mix.”
U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp of Chattanooga complimented the Obama administration for its openness to nuclear energy.
“We need to build another hundred nuclear reactors as a nation in the next 20 years,” Wamp said.
Referring to both President Barack Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Wamp said, “I’m frankly glad they realize if they want to meet any of their carbon goals they have to have an ambitious nuclear plan, and I think they’re starting to get that drift.”
Democrats Mike McWherter, a Jackson businessman, and Kim McMillan, a former state legislator and aide to Bredesen, pointed to the potential in jobs related to new investment in polycrystalline silicon in the state. Hemlock Semiconductor and Wacker Chemie are making large investments in Tennessee. Both Democrats said the focus should be on attracting suppliers for those companies. Hemlock will be in Montgomery County, Wacker in Bradley County.
“We’re all very proud of the work Governor Bredesen has done in green energy,” McMillan said. “That is the job of the future. We need to bring in other satellite industries to feed off them. That’s where the growth will be. We can grow this economy by focusing on the green energy field. I’m excited about the possibility of becoming the Silicon Valley of the South.”
McWherter found a bright spot to talk about.
“In so many ways, Tennessee lags many other states, but I want to brag on Tennessee,” McWherter said. “We’re among the top three states in creating clean energy jobs. They are Oregon, Colorado and Tennessee. That’s a great accomplishment. That’s a position I want to see Tennessee stay in.
“The suppliers that will come in for Hemlock and Wacker will want to locate in a corridor between Clarksville and Chattanooga. What we’ve got to do is go out and actively recruit those supplying industries for those two signature companies. As your next governor, I assure you I will go after those industries very aggressively.”
McWherter said all Tennesseans are invested in those companies, given the tax incentives that attracted them to the state.
“I don’t care where you live in Tennessee, you’ve got an investment in Volkswagen and Wacker and Hemlock. You pay taxes, and we have given tax incentives. You’ve got an investment,” McWherter said.
“The way to get a return is to go out and capture these supplying industries. Once we get those industries in here, they will employ people,” he added. “That makes their employees consumers, and that helps the revenue situation for everyone across the state. It is imperative that the next governor knows to go out and recruit those supplying industries.”