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Nuclear Power Regaining Favor Amid Recession, Climate Concerns
Industries want the government to co-sign for more than $40 billion in loans
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration may soon guarantee as much as $18.5 billion in loans to build nuclear reactors to generate electricity, and Congress is considering whether to add billions more to support an expansion of nuclear power.
These actions come after an extensive, decade-long campaign in which companies and unions related to the industry have spent more than $600 million on lobbying and nearly $63 million on campaign contributions, according to an analysis by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.
Nuclear power generates about 20 percent of America's electricity, but many existing reactors are aging. No new plant has been authorized since the 1979 incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, when small amounts of radiation were released and authorities feared for days that a huge surge might escape.
That's in part because it can cost as much as $8 billion to build a nuclear plant, and in part because the problems of nuclear waste and safety remain unsolved.
But the problem of global warming remains unsolved, too, and as the nation struggles to rebound from a deep recession, building new nuclear reactors increasingly looks to some like a big jobs program. The industry, capitalizing on both developments, argues that nuclear energy must be part of any effort to curb heat-trapping carbon emissions.
Its longtime foes - environmentalists, some labor unions, Democrats - increasingly agree.
"This is nuclear's year," said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., who in recent years has become one of the industry's champions on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has pledged that the climate bill that's making its way through Congress will include new government help for the nuclear industry. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says he would provide a much-sought Republican vote for the bill if its energy provisions include help for the nuclear industry.
Some Republicans, who have historically have friendlier to nuclear power, are pushing a plan to build 100 reactors over the next 20 years. The industry considers the forthcoming $18.5 billion in guarantees a down payment on a more ambitious expansion.
Electric utilities want more than $100 billion in guarantees for construction that's expected to cost $200 billion. Those guarantees are considered crucial to some companies' nuclear plans.
For example, Dallas-based Energy Future Holdings has applied to add two reactors to its Comanche Peak nuclear plant near Glen Rose. In a 2008 interview, EFH Chief Executive John Young told the Star-Telegram that the company expected to borrow $12 billion of the Comanche Peak expansion's estimated $15 billion cost.
But getting the financing will be just about impossible without federal guarantees, especially for a company in Texas' deregulated electricity market, where the cost of a nuclear plant cannot be automatically recouped from ratepayers, Young said at the time.
The Nuclear Energy Institute contends that the guarantees wouldn't cost taxpayers a dime because the recipients would pay fees that should cover the cost of defaults, much the way that auto insurers cover the cost of accidents with premiums paid by safe drivers. However, the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2003 that the risk of default on a nuclear loan would be "very high - well above 50 percent."
Critics of nuclear power say these sums would divert resources from other low-carbon sources of electricity that don't have nuclear's safety or waste issues. These include wind, solar, biomass and geothermal generators. The clean energy bank as proposed would "be a big nuclear-coal slush fund," says Michele Boyd, who lobbies for Physicians for Social Responsibility. Carbon capture for coal and nuclear construction are so expensive that there would be little left over for renewables, she says.
Getting to this point has taken lots of time and lots of money, and the debate over the safety and economics of nuclear electricity is far from settled.
During the Bush administration, the nuclear industry got more in electricity-related research and development funding than coal and other fossil fuels did combined, and Congress approved the loan guarantees.
More recently, the industry has been reaching out to newly empowered Democrats, among them Clyburn, whose state is among the nation's leading nuclear-power producers. (President Barack Obama's home state of Illinois is the biggest, and he and some of his closest political allies have long relationships with Exelon Corp., the country's biggest nuclear power company.)
The industry has also begun to build strong ties to important labor unions.
Millions on lobbying
In the first half of last year, when Congress was considering whether to add nuclear loan guarantees to the economic stimulus package and was starting to work on the climate change bill, companies and unions interested in nuclear energy spent more than $55.8 million on lobbying, the analysis found.
Federal Election Commission records also show that the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade group, donated a total of $99,000 to 63 candidates in the first half of 2009. Sixty percent of the money went to Democrats. As a group, nuclear interests gave $3.5 million to congressional candidates in the first six months of last year.
It hasn't hurt that all these efforts have coincided with a big run-up in energy prices and growing concern over the effects that coal-fired power plants have on the buildup in carbon emissions and global warming.
"We don't believe that nuclear energy is the answer, but as you look at needs for clean energy and the need to protect the environment, there isn't a solution without nuclear," Areva spokesman Jarret Adams said. Areva's reactors would power many of the new plants that are on the drawing boards.
Still, many environmental groups worry about the safety of nuclear power. "The nuclear power industry is always going to remain several minutes away from serious accident and disaster," said Tom Clements, the Southeastern Nuclear Campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, a global environmental group.
The Price-Anderson Act, passed in 1957, limits industry liability for a nuclear accident. Most recently renewed in 2005, it requires a private operator to buy the most private insurance possible - currently $300 million - and assesses fees on the industry for a fund to pay out damages above that amount if necessary. If the fund, which now stands at more than $10 billion, isn't enough, Congress would decide whether to require more industry contributions or appropriate public money. The law is in force through 2025.
Opponents also question why nuclear power needs federal subsidies. "If nuclear power is the right path to go down, why can't it pay for itself?" Clements said. "Nuclear power is going to be dependent on subsidies and handouts, and we still get nuclear waste and the threat of accident in return."
The waste issue remains perhaps the biggest stumbling block. Generating nuclear power produces huge quantities of radioactive waste, including plutonium, a key ingredient for nuclear weapons. When many of the current reactors were put into place, there was an assumption that the federal government would eventually create a national repository. After decades of debate, however, that promise appears no closer to being met, and the plants have become de facto storage facilities.