Pushing nuclear power

President Barack Obama visited suburban Maryland on Tuesday to make a pitch for a new generation of nuclear power and announce loan guarantees for the first new U.S. nuclear plant in decades.

Obama, whose energy agenda remains stalled in Congress, told an invited audience at a labor center in Lanham that his administration was awarding a conditional $8.33 billion federal loan guarantee for construction of a Southern Co. nuclear reactor in Burke, Ga. It would be the first new U.S. nuclear plant to break ground in nearly three decades.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, among an audience of 100 who consisted mainly of union and business representatives, expressed hope that a federal guarantee will soon be awarded for construction of a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs, in Southern Maryland.

O'Malley, a Democrat, supports construction of the reactor in Lusby. He said Maryland has "every reason to believe" a federal subsidy will be extended to the owners of Calvert Cliffs, a Baltimore-based joint venture of Constellation Energy and France's EDF Group. The project is widely reported to be among three finalists for the next phase of loan guarantees.

Obama couched his support for expanded nuclear power generation in both environmental terms and as a job stimulus. Obama warned that the United States cannot afford to remain "mired in the same old stale debates between the left and right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs," while other countries move ahead with new nuclear plants.

"Nuclear energy remains our largest source of fuel that procures no carbon emissions," he said. "We'll need to increase our supply of nuclear power. It's that simple."

Obama toured the business-labor training center in Prince George's County, then used its lobby as a backdrop for his announcement, with hard-hatted trainees on stage behind him. It was the Democrat's third trip to Maryland in as many weeks, part of an election-year effort to step outside Washington and advertise his interest in creating jobs at a time of high unemployment.

In brief remarks, Obama described building new nuclear plants as one of the "tough decisions" the country must make, along with opening up new offshore petroleum exploration and spending more on biofuels and coal.

Without those investments, he said, the United States will "fall behind. Jobs will be produced overseas, instead of here." Some critics say that day has already arrived, as China and other countries make major new investments in advanced energy technology. Obama noted that 56 nuclear reactors are under construction worldwide, including 21 in China.

Despite criticism of the nuclear subsidy program, Obama has proposed tripling, to $55 billion, the funds available for energy loan guarantees, to "continue to provide financing for clean energy projects here in Maryland and across America."

In an interview, O'Malley called Obama's announcement "a very positive step" which signaled that "the United States is back in the business" of building nuclear-generating facilities again.

The governor said he hoped that federal approval would come "sooner rather than later, given the jobs" involved. Several thousand construction jobs and hundreds of permanent jobs are expected to be created by the Maryland reactor project, according to a top official of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26, which played host to Obama.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu joined the president for a tour of the center, which trains electrical workers from the Washington area for jobs that would include nuclear plant construction.

The Georgia nuclear project is the first of "at least a half-dozen, probably more, loans," Chu said in a conference call. He declined to identify the projects that were in line for loan guarantees or to predict when the next awards would be made, noting the complexity of the loan agreements.

Opponents of the federal subsidy program, an unusual mixture of fiscal conservatives and anti-nuclear and environmental activists, point to the nuclear industry's history of dumping billions of dollars on taxpayers for the cost of abandoned nuclear plants and hundreds of billions on ratepayers for cost overruns on plant construction.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has said the new round of loan guarantees would "shift unacceptable risks from the nuclear industry to U.S. taxpayers" and called the Energy Department program "a prime example of pork-barrel politics on behalf of special interests."

Chu played down past government warnings, including one by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, that the risk of default for new nuclear plants could be as high as 50 percent. "We believe it is far less than that," he said, without providing a figure.

Critics have also noted that there is no safe plan for storage and long-term disposal of nuclear waste. The president acknowledged those "serious drawbacks" but said that putting more money into nuclear energy "remains a necessary step."

The push on nuclear power is a prime part of Obama's renewed effort to promote bipartisanship after the loss of a Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts. It is one of relatively few parts of Obama's climate change agenda that enjoys broad support from Republicans, who have attacked his cap-and-trade proposal as a "cap-and-tax" plan.

"I believe there's real common ground here," said Obama, who discussed nuclear power in his State of the Union speech and returned to the subject two days later during a meeting with Republican House members at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. "My administration will be working to build on areas of agreement so that we can pass a bipartisan energy and climate bill through the Senate."