WASHINGTON - President Bush will use the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant as a backdrop this morning for promoting his energy policy - a blueprint that pushes for a major investment in nuclear technology as a key power source for the future.
Since taking office in 2001, Bush has touted the benefits of using nuclear power to bolster the country's energy independence. Now, with a huge legislative package poised to pass the Senate as early as the end of this week, the industry could get a big boost from the federal government.
Both the House and Senate bills contain provisions to help the nuclear industry, but the Senate version is more specific, offering tax credits and loan guarantees for new reactors.
A key sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, said yesterday that he expects most of the elements to be incorporated into a final package.
"We will get everything that a consensus of those that think nuclear ought to move ahead want to get," said Domenici, a New Mexico Republican and an advocate of nuclear power.
More than a quarter-century after an accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania effectively rendered the idea of building new plants taboo, the 103 nuclear power plants in the United States now generate 20 percent of the nation's electricity.
Despite security concerns prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001. terrorist attacks, the industry - including Constellation Energy Group Inc., which owns Calvert Cliffs - is lobbying heavily for a regulatory environment that will allow more reactors to be built.
Industry advocates say nuclear power is safer than ever and cleaner than most other types of energy generation, and new plants would bring jobs to communities and lower electricity costs to consumers.
"I think that what we see here is a confluence of very smart people realizing that in an energy framework going forward, that nuclear power plays an important role no matter what your perspective is," said John Kane, vice president for governmental affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group based in Washington.
Opponents of nuclear power say the industry may have switched its strategy, but that the basic situation hasn't changed. Nuclear reactors still pose a threat to the communities that surround them, still generate radioactive waste that is difficult to dispose of, and still cost more to build and operate than other forms of generation, said Navin Nayak, an environmental advocate at the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, also known as MaryPIRG.
"All of the reasons, historically, as to why nuclear power has been on the shelf for 30 years are still there," he said. "I think that ultimately, most people recognize that, at the very least, we're trading one serious problem for another."
A new nuclear reactor has not been approved since before the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, though several reactors have come online. As the scary images of that crisis - and the horror of the 1986 meltdown at the Chernobyl plant in what was then the Soviet Union - have faded, so has some of the fear that used to dominate the debate over nuclear power.
Appealing to the twin desires of making the air cleaner while producing more power, the industry has promoted the fact that, like wind and solar power, nuclear power doesn't burn anything and so sends nothing into the air.
The campaign seems to be working: According to a poll conducted last month for Kane's group, 32 percent of respondents said they "strongly favor" nuclear energy, compared with 10 percent who said they strongly oppose it. And the poll shows the gap between the groups widening.
The two reactors at Calvert Cliffs, which came online in 1975 and 1977, represent the foundation the industry wants to build on. Already, power companies are studying sites for new reactors - including at the plant in Lusby, which overlooks the Chesapeake Bay.
In 2000, the plant in Calvert County in Southern Maryland became the first in the country to win a 20-year extension of its operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that oversees nuclear plants. Last month, a consortium of power companies, known as NuStart Energy Development, announced that Calvert Cliffs is one of six sites being considered for construction of new reactors.
"We're hoping that this gives us an opportunity to demonstrate clearly Calvert Cliffs' viability for the next nuclear reactor," said Rob Gould, a spokesman for Constellation Energy Group. Bush will take a tour of the plant, which is closed to the public, before speaking.
Carl Crawford, a spokesman for NuStart - which includes Constellation - said members intend to narrow the list to two sites by this fall, then apply to the NRC for a license to build and operate new reactors there.
For now, Crawford said, the goal of NuStart is to obtain a license, not to build anything. That will be left up to the companies to decide.
"Quite frankly, right now, no nuclear operator will order a new nuclear operating plant because they don't know if they can get a license to run it," Crawford said. "Obviously, the nation needs nuclear for clean air and to reduce our dependence on foreign energy. But investors aren't going to take a risk - the financial risk is just too great right now."
Crawford estimated that it would cost $2 billion to build a new reactor. If Congress comes through with incentives, however, they could provide the impetus for investors to "choose nuclear," Kane said. Once the first few plants are built - and prove that it can be done without the huge cost overruns that beset the first generation of reactors - the industry should be able to stand on its own, he said.
"In order to keep the economy growing, I think you have to have stable, reliable and affordable energy," Kane said. "We feel very confident that if we can get over that initial hurdle ... nuclear will be very competitive in the long run."
But Nayak said the economics haven't changed. If the federal government offers power companies financial incentives to build, in the form of loan guarantees, as well as tax credits for producing electricity once the plants are built, there won't be much left of what is now part of the private sector, he said.
"It's hard to imagine how this is really a private industry any more, when government is basically holding both of their hands," Nayak said.
Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst at the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace, put it more bluntly:
"If the businessmen don't think this is a good way to go, if they're not willing to invest their money, why is it a good idea for the American taxpayer?" Riccio asked.
"My concern is, in the name of global warming, you are going to end up subsidizing the nuclear industry."