WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is endorsing nuclear energy like never before, trying to win over Republicans and moderate Democrats on climate and energy legislation.
Obama singled out nuclear power in his State of the Union address, and his spending plan for the next budget year is expected to include billions of more dollars in federal guarantees for new nuclear reactors. This emphasis reflects both the political difficulties of passing a climate bill in an election year and a shift from his once cautious embrace of nuclear energy.
He's now calling for a new generation of nuclear power plants.
During the campaign, Obama said he would support nuclear power with caveats. He was concerned about how to deal with radioactive waste and how much federal money was needed to support construction costs. Those concerns remain; some say they've gotten worse.
His administration has pledged to close Yucca Mountain, the planned multibillion-dollar burial ground in the Nevada desert for high-level radioactive waste. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has been criticized for his slow rollout of $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to spur investment in new nuclear power plants, and the administration killed a Bush-era proposal to reprocess nuclear fuel.
What has changed is the outlook for climate and energy legislation, a White House priority. The House passed a bill in June that would limit emissions of heat-trapping gases for the first time. But the legislation led to a Republican revolt in the Senate, where the recent election of Republican Scott Brown from Massachusetts has made the measure even more of a long shot.
Obama reaffirmed his commitment to a bill in his State of the Union speech as a way to create more clean-energy jobs, but added that "means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country."
$54 billion ante
To back that up, he is expected to seek $54 billion in additional loan guarantees for nuclear power in his 2011 budget request to Congress on Monday, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the request has not been made public.
White House officials say Obama's actions reflect his long support of nuclear power. But lawmakers from both parties say the speech reflected a new urgency and willingness to reach out to Republicans who have criticized Obama for not talking more about the role nuclear energy can play in slowing global warming.
The 104 nuclear reactors in operation in 31 states provide only 20 percent of the nation's electricity. But they are responsible for 70 percent of the power from pollution-free sources, including wind, solar and hydroelectric dams.
Several analyses of the climate bills passed by the House and under consideration in the Senate suggest that the U.S. will have to build many more plants in order to meet the 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 called for in the legislation. One of those studies, by the Environmental Protection Agency, assumed 180 new reactors would come on line by 2050.
"I see an evolving attitude on energy by the president," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, who has called for 100 plants to be built in the next 20 years. Alexander, R-Tenn., said Obama's mention of nuclear energy in the address Wednesday night was the most important statement that the president has made on nuclear power.
"Up until now, the administration has been pursuing a national windmill policy instead of a national energy policy, which is the military equivalent of going to war in sailboats," he said.
Senate brokers on same path
Well before the speech, three senators cobbling together a Senate energy and climate bill — Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry, Connecticut independent Joe Lieberman and South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham — were pledging to include more in the bill for nuclear energy and offshore drilling to secure the necessary 60 votes to overcome a likely filibuster from opponents.
What's unclear is whether Obama's endorsement will help. It could attract more Republican and moderate Democrats. But nuclear energy and offshore drilling may alienate some liberal Democrats and environmentalists. One environmental group, Friends of the Earth, called it "a kick in the gut."
Graham said Obama's speech was an opening that he hoped to take advantage of to court more GOP support. But he said some pro-nuclear Republicans, while pleased with the president's remarks, are nervous about the other part of the bill — a plan to limit heat-trapping pollution, which will raise energy costs.
"The president did a great job putting nuclear on the table in a robust way, as well as offshore drilling for oil and natural gas," said Graham. "I hope Republicans understand we have a once in lifetime chance, but in return we have to come up with emissions standards."
McCain a question mark
Lieberman praised Obama for "reaching out beyond the Democratic Party base," but said it may not be enough to win the support of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain criticized Obama's stance on nuclear power during the 2008 campaign, but has backed efforts to reduce global warming.
McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said that while the senator was encouraged, the administration needs to address reprocessing and disposal if nuclear power is to be a viable option.
On Friday, the Department of Energy announced a bipartisan commission to investigate alternatives to Yucca Mountain.
The nuclear energy industry is waiting to see what else the administration will deliver. Its wish list includes more financing for loan guarantees, as well as tax incentives for nuclear energy manufacturing and production facilities.
"The turnaround in the last year has just been astounding and welcome," said Jim Connaughton, the former chairman of the White House Council of Environmental Quality under President George W. Bush. Connaughton now works for Constellation Energy, the Baltimore-based energy company that owns a stake in five nuclear reactors and is seeking to build more.
"There is no question that if you look at the votes, for a majority of them that have been on the fence, restoring America's leadership in nuclear energy is an essential requirement," he added.
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