President Obama said Tuesday the government will offer $8.3 billion loan guarantees to build the nation’s first new nuclear reactors in three decades, endorsing a long-held Republican energy priority and making good on a bipartisan promise from his State of the Union address.
The money will kick-start construction for two reactors at an existing plant in Georgia, but Mr. Obama’s announcement still leaves key questions unanswered about nuclear waste storage and the government’s long-term commitment to nuclear energy.
Saying he’s still committed to a bill that would combat global warming, Mr. Obama made the pitch for nuclear power as one piece of an overall energy policy that relies on a number of domestic sources, such as clean coal, advanced biofuels, wind, solar and - in another olive branch to Republicans - offshore sources of oil and natural gas.
“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,” said Mr. Obama during an appearance at a union training facility in Lanham, Md. “Make no mistake: 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.”
Republicans and moderate Democrats welcomed the guarantees as a good first step in promoting nuclear energy. The Republican senators from Georgia noted that Southern Co., the firm that owns the plant, still requires approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on a license to build and operate the reactors.
“Nuclear power is reliable and it emits zero carbon. As I have said repeatedly over the years, it must be part of the solution if we want to meet the goal of reducing carbon and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil,” Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia said in a statement urging the NRC to act swiftly in issuing a license for the project.
Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander called the White House announcement a “welcome change from an energy policy that was looking like a national windmill policy.”
“President Obama deserves credit for moving ahead with these guarantees as well as for recent superior appointments to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” the Tennessee senator said.
The looming question of what to do with the potential nuclear waste, however, could threaten Mr. Obama’s bipartisan push. The loan guarantees come a few weeks after the White House released a budget that axed funding to create a nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a move that roiled nuclear advocates but drew praise from local politicians including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Energy Department Secretary Steven Chu has established a bipartisan commission to study long-term options for managing nuclear waste and make recommendations in two years. But nuclear power advocates say that’s not enough. One of them, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, threatened legal action Tuesday if the administration doesn’t go forward with Yucca, which has been eyed for two decades as a nuclear storage site.
Daniel Kish, a senior vice president at the Institute for Energy Research, said the administration’s move to help finance nuclear reactors without a plan for waste disposal is like giving loan guarantees to help people buy cars but not issuing licenses so drivers can use them.
“The real question is whether they actually let them build it because the biggest problem with construction of nuclear power plants in many cases is that the governments have erratic policies toward regulation,” Mr. Kish said.
Environmental activists equally were frustrated by Mr. Obama’s announcement, which they described as a “nuclear bailout.”
“The last thing Americans want is another government bailout for a failing industry, but that’s exactly what they’re getting from the Obama administration,” said Ben Schreiber, a climate analyst for Friends of the Earth. “The Department of Energy is putting taxpayers on the hook for bailing out costly and dangerous nuclear reactor projects when the loans used to finance those projects default. This is great news for Wall Street but a bad deal for Main Street.”
Mr. Obama’s proposal to address global warming by setting up a cap-and-trade system passed the House last summer but has stalled in the Senate, where it met opposition from Rust Belt Democrats. The task of getting a cap-and-trade bill through the upper chamber became even more difficult with the election of Sen. Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who ended the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority.