LUSBY - Calling nuclear power a safe, environmentally friendly solution, President Bush called yesterday for the industry to build more reactors to help meet the nation's growing demand for electricity.
The nation's 103 reactors now provide one-fifth of its electricity, but the United States hasn't licensed a new nuclear plant in more than a quarter-century. The nuclear industry is pushing hard for incentives to kick-start the process - and Congress is poised to approve them - but even with financial help, a new reactor is not expected to be built for a decade or more.
In a speech at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant - a potential site for new construction - Bush said the government needs to facilitate new reactors, by simplifying the licensing process and offering financial help to reduce the risk to investors, especially at first.
"It is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again," he said.
Opponents, however, say new reactors shouldn't be built until there's a good solution for the main problems of the existing ones: the threat of an accident and the difficult issue of what to do with the radioactive waste they produce.
Industry officials say a new reactor would cost about $2 billion, although the current generation of nuclear plants tended to end up over budget and took many years to complete. Industry officials say that with financial help from the government, new plants could be competitive with other types of electric plants that cost less to build and run.
Bush has promoted nuclear energy since he took office in 2001, and yesterday, he spoke to about 400 people after a tour of the 30-year-old facility. With top leaders from Constellation Energy Group of Baltimore, the plant's owner, looking on, he praised its capability - the two reactors produce 20 percent of Maryland's power - and held it up as an example to prod Congress to finish a major package of energy legislation.
That bill could gain Senate approval as early as today.
"Energy is vital to the future of this country. Everybody who works here knows that. Everybody who turns on their light switch should know that," Bush said. "It's obvious that we can't expand our economy if businesses don't have enough energy."
Appetite for energy
With American consumption rising four times as fast as production, more aggressive steps need to be taken, he said. Bush touched on the need to conserve energy and look for new, renewable fuel sources - such as biodiesel made from soybeans - but he saved his most lavish praise for the energy produced at Calvert Cliffs.
He called nuclear power "the one energy source that is completely domestic, plentiful in quantity, environmentally friendly, and able to generate massive amounts of electricity."
"Across this state, Maryland has looked to Calvert Cliffs to keep their lights on and to keep their land, air and water clean," Bush said. "In other words, you're generating electricity and helping the environment at the same time."
But most environmental advocacy groups strongly oppose expansion. Nuclear power might be cleaner than other forms of electric generation, they say, but building a safe plant is extremely costly and the question of how to safely dispose of radioactive waste remains highly contentious. There is the risk of an accident, critics note, and reactors - many of which are situated on bodies of water, like Calvert Cliffs - present a potential target for terrorists.
"It's a fair subject for debate, whether nuclear power has a future in light of issues like global warming, but there seems to be kind of a rush to conclusion," said Eric V. Schaeffer, a former Environmental Protection Agency enforcement official who is now director of the Environmental Integrity Project.
"People are forgetting about all the problems we had with the technology over the years, and we still are fighting with the waste issue," he said.
Still, nuclear proponents in Congress are ready to deliver financial incentives in the energy bill to enable the nuclear industry to build new plants. Those include additional risk insurance for the first four new reactors, loan guarantees for new plants and tax credits for producing power that does not create air pollution.
Nuclear power is prevalent in Europe and other parts of the world; France, for example, gets 78 percent of its power from nuclear plants, and the figure is 72 percent in Lithuania. But the United States hasn't issued a new license since before Three Mile Island, in 1979.
Bush acknowledged that earlier problems at nuclear power plants had frightened people. But again using Calvert Cliffs as an example, he said today's operations are safer and more reliable. New designs, industry advocates say, should make the process better and less costly.
"Slowly but surely, people are beginning to look at the facts," Bush said. "One of the reasons I've come to this plant is to help people understand the difference between fact and fiction."
Five years ago, Calvert Cliffs became the first plant in the country to win a 20-year extension of its operating license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The plant, perched above the Chesapeake Bay shoreline in Calvert County, Southern Maryland, is one of six sites the consortium of power companies, which includes Constellation, is considering for construction of new reactors.
Plant officials saw today's visit - with dignitaries who included the head of the NRC and Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman - as a chance to sell Calvert Cliffs as a prime spot for a new reactor. Along with banners welcoming Bush were signs declaring the plant "The Future of Nuclear Power."
Brad Heavner, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, also known as MaryPIRG, said in a statement that Bush is promoting a high-risk path when other, cheaper, methods are available:
"The nuclear age has passed, and nuclear energy has created more problems than solutions. Now is the time to develop a safer, cleaner and cheaper energy infrastructure, not be misled by a dying industry."
Bush's speech focused on energy, but he also addressed a number of other issues, from Social Security to education. He praised Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for the progress made in Maryland's education system, crediting the federal No Child Left Behind Act with improved math and reading scores in all 24 of the state's school districts.
Bush noted that since 2003, reading scores for Hispanic third-graders jumped from 39 percent proficiency to 63 percent proficiency on the annual Maryland School Assessment, a new test that was brought in after the federal law took effect:
"It's working here in Maryland. How do you know? Because we measure; we're not guessing. We used to guess, now we measure - so we know."