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Obama Sings A Nuclear Tune

Renaissance: Administration offers $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power plants

by Jeff Johnson
February 22, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 8

Credit: Southern
Two operating nuclear power plants sit next to the excavation site for Southern’s planned new power plants..
Credit: Southern
Two operating nuclear power plants sit next to the excavation site for Southern’s planned new power plants..

The Obama Administration has offered to provide $8.33 billion in loan guarantees to back construction of two 1,100-MW nuclear reactor power plants to be built in Burke, Ga., by Southern, an electricity-generating company. President Barack Obama made the announcement at a Maryland electrical union training facility on Feb. 16, stressing his goal of creating new jobs by reviving an industry that produces 20% of the nation's electricity but hasn't built a plant in 30 years.

Obama said that the project would result in "thousands" of construction jobs and 800 permanent jobs, as well as the elimination of 16 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, the amount that would be emitted by an equivalent coal-fired plant. Equating nuclear energy with renewable energy source—wind and solar—Obama said government support will help the U.S. export, rather than import, these technologies in the future.

The two plants are expected to cost about $14 billion, and Southern would build them next to two operating nuclear power plants. Southern expects to have the reactors running by 2016 and 2017. But many bumps lie ahead.

Investing In Safe, Clean Nuclear Energy
Credit: The White House

Neither the reactor design nor the site has been fully approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Last October, NRC announced flaws in the new Westinghouse AP1000 design that Southern wants to use. NRC said the reactor’s shield building for its primary containment structure was inadequate.

NRC spokesman Scott Burnell notes that NRC has approved an early site permit for Southern, which allows the utility to begin excavation. NRC has also received Southern's application for a combined construction and operating licence. NRC estimates that it could approve Southern's application by 2011, but to do so, NRC would also have to have approved the AP1000 design, which is incomplete at this time, he says.

Critics worry about a loan default, which, under the loan guarantee, taxpayers would be forced to cover. A report by the Congressional Budget Office raised such a concern when Congress was considering legislation to provide loan guarantees to build nuclear power plants. The office warned that the default risk was high; more than half of those receiving loans could default because of nuclear power’s high construction costs and consequent high and uncompetitive electricity prices compared with that of electricity from natural gas- or coal-fired power plants.



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