Washington - After decades of debate, the United States is poised to build its first new nuclear reactors since the early 1970s.
Speaking at a job training centre northeast of Washington Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced the federal government would underwrite the construction of two new reactors to be built in Georgia.
The loan guarantee will be for 8.3 billion dollars, meaning a sizable percentage of the reactors' 8.8 billion price tag will be put up by the government – and absorbed by it, were Southern Company, the energy firm building the plants, to default.
This investment in nuclear power is not unexpected and has two main objectives in addition to addressing the omnipresent objective of job creation. Obama hopes recharging the country's nuclear industry will help usher in an era of cleaner energy and help build a bridge between those, including the president, who want Congress to pass significant climate change legislation and those, mainly Republicans, who do not.
"Even though we’ve not broken ground on a new power plant – new nuclear plant – in 30 years, nuclear energy remains our largest source of fuel that produces no carbon emissions. To meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we'll need to increase our supply of nuclear power. It's that simple," Obama said Tuesday.
He said that one of the new plants would produce 16 million fewer tonnes of carbon pollution a year when compared to a similar coal plant. "That's like taking 3.5 million cars off the road," he said.
Obama admitted, however, that the environmental benefits of nuclear power were not that clear cut. But he seemed willing to accept the scepticism of environmentalists for what he saw as the clean energy advantages of nuclear – both emissions-wise and politically.
"There are also going to be those who strongly disagree with this announcement. The same has been true in other areas of our energy debate, from offshore drilling to putting a price on carbon pollution," Obama said.
"But what I want to emphasise is this: Even when we have differences, we cannot allow those differences to prevent us from making progress. On an issue that affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we can’t keep on being mired in the same old stale debates between the left and the right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs," he said.
This action comes as no surprise following the several nuclear-related proposals Obama has put forward over the past couple weeks. Obama announced his intention to pursue "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants" in his State of the Union speech last month. The following week, his administration proposed a budget that would triple the amount of loans available to energy utilities with plans to build new nuclear plants.
This tripling raises the amount available to the industry to 54 billion dollars, up from the 18.5 billion Congress authorised for such loan guarantees under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The 8.8 billion announced for the Georgia reactors Tuesday is part of the Congressional allotment.
A major reason for these moves has been that in the bitter fight over climate legislation that has been ongoing on Capitol Hill, nuclear power has been one of the few issues that seems to have the ability to draw Republican support.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican who is working with Democrats on crafting a bipartisan proposal, has said nuclear will have to be part of any successful bill.
Even the right-wing pundit and one-time vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has spoken favourably of Obama's nuclear agenda.
"I was thankful that the president at least mentioned nuclear power in the State of the Union. But again, we need more than words, we need a plan to turn that goal into a reality, and that way we can pave the way for projects that will create jobs," she told a crowd of supporters Feb. 6.
Tuesday's announcement will work to pave the way toward a nuclear reality that Palin and other conservatives want, and so Obama hopes it will also pave the way toward bipartisan agreement on a climate bill.
"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," Obama said Tuesday, explaining he sees "real common ground" between the two political sides.
He also pointed out to those who have opposed a bill capping greenhouse gas emissions – but are in favour of new nuclear plants – that "we're not going to achieve a big boost in nuclear capacity unless we also create a system of incentives to make clean energy profitable."
The U.S. currently has 104 nuclear reactors, which together provide 20 percent of the country's electricity. The new plants whose funding was announced Tuesday are expected to be able to produce 2.2 gigawatts of electricity once they come online in 2016 or 2017.
The U.S.'s nuclear production is dwarfed by other countries. France, for instance, has 59 plants, which provide nearly 80 percent of its power. Japan is a much distant second.
Obama noted Tuesday how these two countries "have long invested heavily in this industry. Meanwhile, there are 56 nuclear reactors under construction around the world: 21 in China alone; six in South Korea; five in India."
He drew parallels between the U.S. lagging behind other countries in nuclear power and its lagging behind in renewable power sources.
"Whether it’s nuclear energy, or solar or wind energy, if we fail to invest in the technologies of tomorrow, then we’re going to be importing those technologies instead of exporting them. We will fall behind," he said.
The last time a nuclear power plant was completed in the U.S. was in the early 1970s. Plans for reactors that had been approved after 1973 were subsequently cancelled and many partly-built facilities were abandoned following the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, which released radioactive gases into the air after a partial core meltdown.
Tuesday, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu explained that nuclear technology has come a long way since then and that the new reactors were part of a new, safer generation. "If you lose control, it will not melt down," he said.
Regulators must still approve the proposed plants for licensing before construction can go forward.
Most environmental groups were not pleased by the news. Nuclear, they felt, is hardly clean.
"We need to prioritise the cleanest, cheapest, safest, and fastest ways to reduce emissions and nuclear power is neither clean, cheap, nor fast, nor safe," said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope.
He was particularly critical of the way the loans put "taxpayers on the hook for billions, particularly when the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office puts the risk of default at over 50 percent."
Chu disputed the 50 percent number.
The biggest environmental problem regarding nuclear power is the safe storage of the waste the reactors produce. The Obama administration has shut down longstanding plans to bury such waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Last month, they set up a "blue-ribbon commission" to look into possible storage solutions.
Obama recognises the problems. "Now, none of this is to say that there aren't some serious drawbacks with respect to nuclear energy that have to be addressed. As the CEOs standing behind me will tell you, nuclear power generates waste, and we need to accelerate our efforts to find ways of storing this waste safely and disposing of it," he said.
Without a plan for dealing with the highly contentious problem of radioactive waste, though, Obama's loan plan only addresses the very first of many hurdles to his proposed new generation of nuclear.
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