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Power of support: Obama administration gets behind nuclear plants

Written by Susan Mannella on .

What presidents say in their State of the Union addresses are sometimes nothing more than applause lines, but Barack Obama's endorsement of nuclear power before Congress in late January was confirmed last week -- and that's good news for the nation.

In Lanham, Md., on Tuesday, before a happy audience of union members for whom clean energy efforts translate to new jobs, Mr. Obama announced that the U.S. Department of Energy had conditionally approved $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear plant construction.

Southern Co. plans to build two advanced reactors at the Plant Vogtle power station in eastern Georgia. When the company receives its construction and operating license, this will be first new nuclear plant to be built in the United States since the 1970s. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, hailed the announcement as a milestone.

All of this will give some environmentalists heartburn -- especially as Southern Co., which also has fossil fuel-burning plants, has lobbied strongly against climate-change legislation in Congress. But there's a bigger picture to consider. Environmentalists should ask themselves what is the greatest threat facing the planet today. If their answer is climate change, they need to rethink their position and move beyond one company's unhelpful behavior.

The United States has 104 nuclear power plants. Operating under stringent federal safety requirements, they reliably provide about a fifth of the nation's electricity and do it without producing greenhouse gases.

In supporting nuclear power, the Obama administration is not slighting other forms of clean energy such as solar and wind. It is recognizing that nuclear energy has an important role to play. Indeed, nuclear energy is less problematic than opening up new offshore areas for oil and gas exploration -- which the president also mentioned in his State of the Union address and again last Tuesday.

Unfortunately, the administration has not followed the logic of its own policy. It had previously pulled the plug on Nevada's Yucca Mountain, as a final depository of nuclear waste, which will go piling up at individual plants. Eventually, something will have to be done, but for the moment the Not in My Back Yard syndrome rules.

Pittsburgh has a stake in a sensible approach to nuclear power, thanks to the presence of Westinghouse Electric Co. headquartered in Cranberry, a giant in the nuclear power industry. Westinghouse is designing the new reactors in Georgia.

That parochial interest happens to coincide with the national interest. If the United States is going to get serious about climate change, it must also get serious about nuclear power.

  

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