President Bush visited a nuclear power plant in Maryland on Wednesday in a push to encourage the construction of new sites as part of long-stalled energy legislation in Congress, arguing that nuclear power can reduce foreign dependency on energy and help tackle emissions tied to global warming.
"It is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again," he said to applause from employees of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant, located south of Washington, D.C.
"Nuclear power is one of America's safest sources of energy," he added, all "without producing a single pound of air pollution and greenhouse gases" like carbon dioxide, which many scientists tie to global warming.
Nuclear energy produces 20 percent of America's electricity needs, the president noted, saving "about as much carbon dioxide as now comes from all our cars and trucks."
Citing better training and new designs, the president said "nuclear plants are far safer than ever before ... generating electricity and protecting the environment at the same time."
The Calvert Cliffs plant is one of a six sites being considered for a new, advanced reactor. If built, it would be America’s first new commercial reactor since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.
Legislation in Congress would provide financial incentives and lawsuit protections for new nuclear power plants, an idea opposed by environmental groups. Many oppose nuclear power on principle, while a few say it shouldn't receive subsidies.
"Nuclear power poses a major security risk and produces a radioactive waste, which we have no way to store safely over the long term," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said shortly after Bush's speech. "It also makes absolutely no sense to waste tax dollars on new power plants when we have not secured or cleaned up the waste from existing nuclear power plants."
Oil survey, global warming votes
Bush's speech came as the Senate nears passage of an energy bill, but it would have to be reconciled with a House measure that’s markedly different.
On Tuesday, environmentalists lost a pair of energy votes in the Senate: a new survey of offshore oil and gas resources and backed non-binding measures to fight global warming.
Senators backed away from urging stronger measures to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse emissions, instead endorsing the president's climate policy that relies on voluntary emission reductions by industry and focuses on curtailing the growth of emissions rather than reducing them.
The president argues that mandatory limits of greenhouse gases, especially carbon from burning fossil fuels, could cripple the economy and lead to higher energy prices. Even then, Bush says, they would not ensure that climate risks would be addressed unless countries like China and India also make emission cuts.
By a 66-29 vote, the Senate agreed with much of that argument, approving a measure offered by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., that would provide government incentives to develop ways to reduce emissions and capture carbon so less of it goes into the atmosphere.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said many of those kinds of incentives already had been put in other parts of the energy legislation, but he supported Hagel’s amendment anyway.
Tougher action unlikely
Environmentalists had hoped the Senate might adopt a proposal that would include mandatory pollution caps that, while less stringent than those required by the Kyoto climate accord, would still reduce emissions. A proposal offered by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., would have required industry to bring emissions back to where they were five years ago by 2010.
The Senate was expected to vote on the McCain-Lieberman proposal on Wednesday, but even its supporters said it has little chance of being approved.
McCain, who has tangled with the administration over climate policy, called Hagel’s provision “meaningless” because it has no requirements for industries to reduce emissions. While it authorizes new programs, it does not guarantee they will be funded by Congress.
McCain and Lieberman argue that emissions could be reduced without huge costs to industry. Lobbyists for coal companies, utilities and the business community maintain that thousands of jobs would be lost and energy prices would increase.
Hagel said his proposal views a slowing of the growth of greenhouse emissions “as a measure of success” and acknowledged it won’t actually reduce the tons of heat-trapping pollutants that go into the atmosphere annually.
“We all agree on the need for a ... stable climate. The debate is not about whether we should take action, but rather what kind of action we should take,” said Hagel.
Key Republican backs off
Domenici, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, said last week he might co-sponsor Democrat Jeff Bingaman’s more stringent plan to slow the growth of U.S. greenhouse gases with an emissions trading program beginning in 2010 tied to U.S. economic growth.
But after talking to the White House and other Republicans, Domenici said he would not support the Bingaman measure.
“This is just too tough to do quickly,” Domenici said. “I expect we will have a series of hearings and I hope we can reach some sort of accommodation on all aspects of a climate proposal. But that will take time.”
The Bingaman plan was based on the results of a bipartisan energy study commission. Environmental groups expressed lukewarm support for it, saying it did not go far enough.
After losing Domenici’s support, Bingaman said he would not offer his approach as an amendment to the energy bill.
Offshore oil survey
Also on Tuesday, the Senate refused to strip from the energy bill language calling for a federal inventory of oil and natural gas in waters off states where drilling is now banned. An attempt by Florida’s Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez to drop the measure failed on a vote of 44-52.
Critics said the survey could eventually lead to opening those waters to energy exploration and hurting tourism, which is a crucial part of Florida’s economy. Survey supporters said the government must know how much oil and gas lies within 200 miles of the U.S. shoreline.
The Senate is on track to to approve a broad energy package this week with some $14 billion in tax incentives over 10 years to encourage more domestic production of oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear and alternative energy.