By Peter Baker and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 25, 2006
LIMERICK, Pa., May 24 -- President Bush promoted nuclear power Wednesday as part of his answer to energy and environmental problems as more companies consider taking advantage of government incentives to build the nation's first new nuclear plant in decades.
In the shadow of twin giant cooling towers, Bush said that his plan to expand nuclear power would curb emissions contributing to global warming and would provide an "abundant and plentiful" alternative to limited energy sources. Bush called the nuclear sector an "overregulated industry" and pledged to work to make it more feasible to build reactors.
"Nuclear power helps us protect the environment. And nuclear power is safe," he said to loud applause from workers at the Limerick Generating Station, about 40 miles from Philadelphia. He added: "For the sake of economic security and national security, the United States must aggressively move forward with construction of nuclear power plants. Other nations are."
Bush has been an ardent advocate of nuclear power since taking office, and he was introduced Wednesday as the industry's most supportive president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. The energy legislation he pushed through Congress last year offered a menu of benefits to industry to build new reactors; 16 companies have expressed interest this year, compared with two last year, although none has filed an application.
No new reactor has been commissioned in the United States since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 about 60 miles west of here, and no president since Jimmy Carter had visited a nuclear plant until Bush traveled to the Calvert Cliffs station in Maryland last year. He donned a white hard hat Wednesday for his second reactor tour, inspecting the No. 2 turbine amid a powerful hum that made it hard to hear.
Opinion polls suggest public attitudes toward nuclear power are shifting. Support for expanding the use of nuclear energy has grown from 43 percent to 55 percent in the past three years, according to surveys by the Gallup Organization. The Pew Research Center found rising support in the past few months as gasoline prices have soared, from 39 percent last September to 44 percent in February. Still, 49 percent remain against expanding nuclear energy.
"It's still a controversial issue," said Pew Executive Director Andrew Kohut, "but it might have a little wind in its sails, given people's concerns about energy prices."
Some environmentalists, including Patrick Moore, co-founder of Greenpeace, have changed their minds as well, seeing nuclear energy as clean compared with fossil fuels that pollute the environment. Other environmentalists complain that Bush is overselling any benefits from nuclear power and underestimating the risks.
"Despite the billions of dollars in subsidies and a new public relations campaign, the Bush administration cannot change reality: Nuclear power remains a dangerous, uneconomical and polluting energy source," said Michele Boyd, an energy specialist for Public Citizen.
Jim Riccio, a nuclear policy analyst with Greenpeace, noted that nuclear plants are vulnerable to airborne attack by terrorists. Bush's visit meant that the airspace over Limerick was restricted, prompting Riccio to comment, "Unfortunately, for the millions of people at risk during a meltdown, that no-fly zone will expire shortly after the president leaves Pennsylvania."
The Energy Policy Act of 2005, championed by Bush, provides a generous package of subsidies to build new reactors, including loan guarantees, federal risk insurance and tax credits. Among the companies analysts consider most likely to file a formal application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is Exelon Corp., which owns the Limerick plant as well as Three Mile Island and a dozen others.
"There seems that there's every reason to do this," said Kevin Book, an energy policy analyst at the Arlington-based investment firm Friedman Billings Ramsey Group Inc. But he said many administration officials and lawmakers believe power companies are holding out for even bigger subsidies.
The subsidies for nuclear power continued to draw criticism. "All these very profitable companies are chasing these federal subsidies and that's because they're all reading off the same song sheet: that building a new nuclear plant is not economically competitive in the United States," said Thomas B. Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "You've got to ask why some working stiff has to use his tax money to put into these kinds of companies to subsidize an unprofitable plant."
As generous as the subsidies are, they might not be enough. The tax credits last eight years, but nuclear plants are licensed to operate from 30 to 60 years. Moreover, the legislation did not solve the problem of nuclear waste. A plan to store spent fuel rods in Nevada's Yucca Mountain has been bogged down in disputes over cost, safety and transportation security.
Exelon President John W. Rowe, who hosted Bush on Wednesday, said at the company's annual shareholders meeting last year that "Exelon has no intention of building a nuclear plant until there is a solution to the spent-fuel problem. . . . Most companies share our view."
Mufson reported from Washington.