Obama's support for nuclear power faces a test

By Peter Wallsten and Jia Lynn Yang
Saturday, March 19, 2011; 12:57 AM

As the deepening crisis in Japan presents the nuclear power industry with its gravest test in years, President Obama has emerged as a critical ally and defender.

Repeatedly in recent days, Obama has peppered public remarks on Japan with assurances that U.S. reactors are safe and that nuclear energy remains a key component of his energy agenda.

The president's stance again puts him in direct opposition to many in his political base, with some environmentalists and a plurality of Democratic voters in a new survey saying that nuclear power is not safe. But Obama has experience with the industry. His home state of Illinois has more nuclear power plants than any other state, and Chicago is the headquarters for Exelon, which operates the country's largest fleet of nuclear plants. And as president, Obama has proposed a dramatic expansion in government-backed loans to build new plants.

"I still think that nuclear power is an important part of our overall energy mix," he told an interviewer this week from WVEC-TV in Norfolk. He added that "we've got to do it in a safe and sensible way."

Asked about potential budget cuts to nuclear research by a local TV reporter from New Mexico, home to major atomic laboratories, the president said the Japan crisis was a reminder that funding was needed. "We've got a budget for it," he said.

The president's stance underscores the important role nuclear power plays in his broader energy agenda.

In the State of the Union speech this year, Obama presented a goal of generating 80 percent of the country's electricity from clean energy sources by 2035. Citing support among different constituencies for wind, solar, nuclear, "clean coal" and natural gas, the president said: "We will need them all."

Nuclear power already accounts for 20 percent of overall electricity in the United States and makes up the vast majority of carbon-free energy.

But because the cost of building a new reactor is so high - and Wall Street is reluctant to invest, with natural gas emerging as a more viable alternative - utilities have turned to the government for assistance. Obama has signaled his desire to help, proposing in his 2012 budget plan an additional $36 billion in loan guarantees to build new plants.

That would come on top of the $18.5 billion set aside as part of the loan guarantee program started under President George W. Bush's Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Some critics have charged that Obama's support for nuclear power can be traced to his political rise in Illinois, home to nuclear giant Exelon.

Those connections "run pretty deep," said Kevin Kamp, with the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear. "That begins to explain his policy."

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