Seeking common ground with Republicans on energy and climate issues, President Obama on Tuesday pledged $8 billion in loan guarantees needed to build the first U.S. nuclear reactor in nearly three decades. The move, along with a trip-ling of nuclear loan guarantees in the President's budget, represents a new federal commitment to the low-carbon-emitting, but highly controversial, nuclear power sector long championed by the GOP.
WASHINGTON - Seeking common ground with Republicans on energy and climate issues, President Obama yesterday pledged $8 billion in loan guarantees needed to build the first U.S. nuclear reactor in nearly three decades.
The move, along with a trip-ling of nuclear loan guarantees in the President's budget, represents a new federal commitment to the low-carbon-emitting, but highly controversial, nuclear power sector long championed by the GOP.
Industry groups and Republican leaders praised the announcement, which has been expected for months, but some environmentalists and free-market think tanks protested.
Speaking at a training center at the Lanham, Md., headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 26, Mr. Obama spoke favorably of nuclear power as part of a mix of alternatives to oil.
"In order to truly harness our potential in clean energy, we'll have to do more," Mr. Obama said. "In the near term, as we transition to cleaner energy sources, we'll have to make tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. We'll need to make continued investments in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies, even as we build greater capacity in renewables like wind and solar.
"And we'll have to build a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in America," he said.
Mr. Obama said his administration would supply about $8 billion in loan guarantees to build two new reactors at an existing nuclear power plant in Burke, Ga., providing thousands of construction jobs in the next few years, and about 800 permanent jobs in the years to come. Compared to similar-sized coal plants, they'll reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 16 million tons annually, or the equivalent of taking 3.5 million cars off the road each year.
Free-market groups complained that the loan guarantees could leave taxpayers on the hook for projects too risky for the private sector to finance.
Many environmentalists echoed them and warned that the administration has not mapped a strategy for safe, long-term storage of the plants' radioactive waste.
"We're not really seeing anything but drawbacks to another corporate bailout that gives new meaning to the phrase 'toxic asset,'•" said Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace. "It is a dirty and dangerous distraction from the clean energy future the President promised America."
Mr. Obama acknowledged that the United States must speed up its search for a safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. The administration has decided not to pursue a permanent repository in Nevada. Until a permanent facility is found, the waste is stored at individual plants.
Mr. Obama noted environmentalist opposition in his remarks, but insisted that clean, safe nuclear power is environmentally preferable to burning coal in outdated plants. Mr. Obama has also called for upgrading coal facilities to capture and store greenhouse gas emissions as part of his push to break the nation's reliance on oil.
But many environmental groups were muted or subdued in their criticism yesterday - a reflection of the delicate politics surrounding ongoing efforts to pass energy and climate legislation in Congress.
Many large conservation groups appear to be tacitly accepting the need to increase federal nuclear support - along with offshore oil and gas drilling - to attract Republican votes for a measure to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) celebrated the nuclear announcement yesterday and said, "I'm encouraged that this signals the administration is broadening its approach to energy policy."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who is working with Sens. John Kerry (D., Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I., Conn.), on a compromise energy and climate bill, said the loan guarantees were "a significant step forward in jump-starting what I hope will be a renaissance in nuclear energy."
In his recent meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, Mr. Obama discussed energy policy. After that meeting, Republican leaders said there was room to work with Mr. Obama on offshore drilling and nuclear power issues.
The Obama Administration hopes to back more nuclear loans. It recently requested lending authority for $36 billion in the 2011 budget, or enough for seven to 10 reactors.
Any new plant is probably several years away given the federal regulatory process. Federal loan guarantees are needed for the companies involved to finance the projects.