WASHINGTON — The "nuclear renaissance," hailed in many headlines and speeches over the last few years, started under President George W. Bush.
Within months after he took office in 2001, an internal briefing paper for Vice President Dick Cheney noted that expanding the use of nuclear power would be "a bold step" that could help lower carbon-dioxide emissions. The paper also predicted that a nuclear revival would be criticized because of waste disposal issues and accidents at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Chernobyl in Ukraine.
By that May, however, a decision had been made: Cheney's energy-policy report backed nuclear power as "a major component" of America’s electricity portfolio.
Cheney worked closely with the leading nuclear energy proponent in Congress at the time, then-Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who chaired the Senate Energy Committee.
From 2002 through 2007, nuclear programs got $6.2 billion for research and development, twice as much as fossil fuel programs received, according to the Government Accountability Office. "Clean coal" may have garnered more headlines under Bush, but R and D money for nuclear programs grew by 59 percent, while money for fossil fuels stayed flat, the GAO reported.
The research was essential to solving waste disposal problems and searching for safer new technology.
There was another problem, however: the huge price tag for new nuclear generators.
Reactors are relatively cheap to operate, but current construction estimates run from $5 billion to $8 billion. Like a blue-collar worker with a yen for a mansion, utilities worried that they couldn't qualify for private financing, especially since huge cost and schedule overruns had spooked Wall Street in the past.
In 2005, Domenici pushed for a first step, $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power plants. He got it in that year's energy bill. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade group, hired a key Domenici staffer, Alex Flint, months later as its chief lobbyist.
Even with Cheney's backing, however, the loan guarantees weren't awarded. The Bush White House held them up, according to AFL-CIO official Mark Ayers, because recipients were required to pay "prevailing wages," a provision that favors union labor. The Nuclear Energy Institute contacted Ayers for help, he said, which he provided.
Despite the support from Bush and Cheney, the money didn't move to utilities that wanted to build power plants. It now appears that the Obama administration will change that.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu reportedly was dismayed by his department's slowness in granting the packages and pledged to move fast. He's in talks now with four finalists, who are pushing him for even more help — as much as $40 billion in guarantees — a Nuclear Energy Institute official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak for the finalists.
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said that Republicans would like to see $100 billion in loan guarantees eventually, which is about what the industry has requested.
The first-round recipients will make or break the case for nuclear power, said Buddy Eller, a spokesman for one of the finalists, the South Texas Project. If they succeed, "people will accept that nuclear needs to be part of the future." If they don't, he added, "I don't know."
(Pasternak, formerly a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, reported and wrote this article under contract with the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a project of the School of Communication at American University in Washington.)
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