President Bush visited the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant on Wednesday to tout his energy policies in what a local historian said was the first presidential trip to the county in almost a century.
During what was also the first presidential visit to a nuclear plant in 26 years, Bush said the federal government needs to encourage the construction of new reactors by streamlining the licensing process and providing financial incentives to the nuclear industry.
"It is time for this country to start building nuclear power plants again," he said during a midmorning speech attended by a crowd of almost 500 federal, state and local officials as well as plant workers.
Officials at Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, which owns the plant, said they hope the presidential visit will increase the likelihood that Calvert Cliffs will be chosen as the site of what would be the first new energy reactor project begun in the United States in 30 years. The Lusby facility is one of six sites being considered.
In an expression of their support for the plant's bid to have a future reactor built at its compound on Chesapeake Bay, employees dotted the facility with Constellation Energy signs that read, "The Future of Nuclear Power."
"I certainly think it improves our odds," said George Vanderheyden, site vice president for Calvert Cliffs.
After he arrived at the plant about 9 a.m. aboard Marine One, Bush was given a tour and an introduction to nuclear physics and politics. He donned a white hard hat and shed his suit jacket as he entered the turbine room, where the temperature can reach 110 degrees. Constellation officials showed him their plans for a new reactor and took him to the plant's control room.
During his speech, Bush thanked the technicians for "being so gracious and kind and taking time to explain all the dials and gauges."
"I can play like I understand what I saw,'' he joked to the crowd.
The president devoted about half of his 45-minute speech, which was billed as an energy address, to a string of domestic issues including Social Security, medical malpractice, the No Child Left Behind education law and tax cuts.
But as Bush spoke in front of a backdrop emblazoned with the phrase "Securing Your Economic Future," he focused on urging Congress to pass an energy bill that includes strong support for nuclear power.
"The energy bill will also help us expand our use of the one energy source that is completely domestic, plentiful in quantity, environmentally friendly and able to generate massive amounts of electricity -- and that's nuclear power," he said. "There is a growing consensus that more nuclear power will lead to a cleaner, safer nation."
State Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell (R-Calvert), one of the many state and local officials who attended the speech, said he would take any steps he could to support the construction of another reactor at Calvert Cliffs, which is already the county's largest taxpayer and private employer.
"It would be good for the county's economy and the state's economy," said O'Donnell, a former employee at Calvert Cliffs.
Jessica Janey, an archivist for the Calvert County Historical Society, said the last U.S. president to visit Calvert County was William H. Taft, who occupied the White House from 1909 to 1913. She said he used the Calvert home of a state lawmaker as a presidential retreat.
County and plant officials did not have much time last week to prepare for the current president's visit. Calvert Cliffs' Vanderheyden said he first heard speculation about two weeks ago that Bush might visit. He said he did not tell anyone else because he was not sure whether the rumor was true.
"You have to think that maybe it's a hoax on someone's part," he said. "Why would the president want to come to Calvert Cliffs?"
Once Vanderheyden learned that Bush would, in fact, visit, the plant executive assigned 220 employees and 80 contract workers to spend seven days around the clock sprucing up the facility. They applied more than 200 gallons of paint, spread two tractor-trailers full of mulch around the grounds and erected an 88-foot-tall flagpole from which a huge Stars and Stripes, weighing 250 pounds, flew on Wednesday.
"Out of respect for the president, you want everything to look pristine," Vanderheyden said.
Tom Kelley, chairman of the Calvert County Republican Central Committee, said he was most struck by the similarities between Bush's positions on issues such as lower taxes and policies supported by local GOP politicians.
"He sounded like a Calvert County Republican," Kelley said. "You hear the same thing from the president in D.C., the governor in Annapolis and the commissioners in Prince Frederick."
But the area's congressional representative, a Democrat, was less enthusiastic about parts of Bush's speech. U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the House minority whip whose district encompasses Southern Maryland, said he supports nuclear power and was pleased that the president visited Calvert Cliffs, but he accused Bush of failing to act on the country's domestic problems.
"This president has done very little, outside of speeches to rooms full of supporters, to actually make progress on the issues the American people care about," Hoyer, who did not attend Bush's appearance in Calvert, said in a statement.
Still, most of the county residents at the plant for the speech were more excited by the president's presence in Calvert than by the politics of the occasion. There was a festival-like atmosphere as guests sampled from an elegant spread of petite egg-salad tarts, crab quiche and heaping plates of smoked Nova Scotia salmon.
"We're just celebrating today," said Barbara A. Burton, the vice chair of the county's Republican Central Committee.
The closest thing to an expression of disappointment about the president's visit came from Dan Donovan, spokesman for the Dominion energy company, which owns the Cove Point liquefied natural gas terminal that is less than five miles from the nuclear plant.
"We were hoping he would come to our place," Donovan said.