LANHAM, Maryland — President Barack Obama Tuesday laid an eight billion dollar bet on nuclear power, unveiling loan guarantees to spur construction on the first new US plant since a notorious accident 30 years ago.
Obama said nuclear power, despite concerns among some environmentalists over safety, must play a key role in an energy policy designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions and wean the United States off foreign oil from volatile regions.
"On an issue which affects our economy, our security, and the future of our planet, we cannot continue to be mired in the same old debates between left and right, between environmentalists and entrepreneurs," Obama said.
"We?ll have to build a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in America," he told journalists on a visit to a training center focusing on clean energy and low carbon energy technologies outside Washington.
"We are announcing roughly eight billion dollars in loan guarantees to break ground on the first new nuclear plant in our country in nearly three decades."
The loan guarantees will go towards the construction of two new 1,100 megawatt nuclear reactors at an existing nuclear facility in Burke, Georgia, the White House said.
At a time of economic blight when the administration is trying to create a new generation of clean energy jobs, Obama said the investment in nuclear power would pay off in employment opportunities in years to come.
"It's a plant that will create thousands of construction jobs in the next few years and some 800 permanent jobs, well-paying permanent jobs, in the years to come. And this is only the beginning," Obama said.
The president also warned that America's competitors were beating it to the punch on nuclear energy, specifically mentioning long-term investments by Japan and France in the industry.
He said of 56 nuclear reactors being built around the world, 21 are in China, six in South Korea, and five in India -- some of the key economies he most often mentions as trailblazing rivals to the United States.
"To meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we'll need to increase our supply the nuclear power. It's that simple.
"Make no mistake: whether it is nuclear energy, or solar or wind energy, if we fail to invest in these technologies today, we?ll be importing them tomorrow."
Obama's move uses a 2005 law that authorizes the Energy Department to guarantee loans to projects that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
There are two broad areas of opposition to Obama's bet on nuclear power -- first among taxpayer watchdog groups who oppose the spending on terms of scale and likely impact.
Secondly, some environmentalists oppose the idea of expanding nuclear power on safety grounds and on principle, arguing that funds should be transferred to other sources of alternative energy.
The campaign group Beyond Nuclear criticized Obama's decision as "utterly irresponsible" and warned of safety concerns over the two new reactors, adding that they were vulnerable to hurricanes or tornados or terror attacks.
Obama has also raised hackles among some in his Democratic Party by signaling a willingness to look at expanding offshore oil and gas drilling -- a key rallying point for Republicans.
There have been no new nuclear power plants built in the United States since the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in the northeastern state of Pennsylvania.
Currently only 20 percent of the country's energy needs are met by nuclear power.
The operation will result in some 3,000 construction jobs, and eventually some 850 permanent jobs, officials say, citing company figures.
Obama said the plant would reduce carbon pollution by 16 million tons each year when compared to a similar coal plant -- the equivalent of taking 3.5 million cars off the road.
When the new nuclear reactors come on line, they will be capable of providing the power needs for 550,000 homes or 1.4 million people, officials said.
The president's 2011 budget unveiled earlier this month contains authority for 36 billion dollars in new loan authority for the construction of new nuclear power plants in addition to 18 billion dollars already authorized.
"We do expect to be making more announcements," US Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters, cautioning however that the process of commissioning new reactors took time and was highly complicated.
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