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Fed loan guarantees may boost nuclear power return

WASHINGTON - More than $8 billion in new federal loan guarantees to build two nuclear reactors in Georgia could be the first step toward a nuclear renaissance in the United States, three decades after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident halted all new reactor orders.

With the nuclear industry poised to begin construction of at least a half dozen plants over the next decade, President Barack Obama announced the first loan guarantees yesterday, casting them as both economically essential and politically attractive. He called nuclear power a key part of comprehensive energy legislation that assigns a cost to the carbon pollution of fossil fuels, giving utility companies more incentive to turn to cleaner nuclear fuel.

"This is only the beginning," Obama said in designating the new federal financial backing for a pair of reactors in Burke County, Ga., to be built by Atlanta-based Southern Co. Obama's budget would triple - to $54.5 billion - loan guarantees available for new nuclear construction.

The federal guarantees, authorized by Congress in 2005, are seen as essential for construction of any new reactor because of the huge expense involved. Critics call the guarantees a form of subsidy and say taxpayers will assume a huge risk, given the industry's record of cost overruns and loan defaults.

Reports by the Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office have estimated the risk of default for new nuclear reactors could be as high as 50 percent.

"This is a pre-emptive bailout," said Allison Fisher, an energy organizer at Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group.

Critics also note the loan guarantees come at the same time Obama has proposed eliminating a long-planned nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Obama has appointed a commission to find a solution for dealing with nuclear waste, but in the meantime the government has no long-term plan to store commercial radioactive waste.

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