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Nuclear Power Gets A Boost

The Senate endorsed billions of dollars in government help for the nuclear industry Tuesday, despite criticism from some senators that it amounts to a giveaway to a mature industry that should be left to succeed — or fail — on its own.

A group of senators, both Republicans and Democrats, tried to strip a broad energy bill of a provision that would give loan guarantees for construction of six next-generation nuclear power reactors. Their amendment was rejected narrowly 50-48.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the architect of the package of subsidies for the nuclear industry, said their approval will determine whether nuclear power remains a vital part of the nation's energy picture. Nuclear reactors currently provide 20 percent of the country's electricity.

"The time has come to quit playing around with energy and say wherever we can we are going to produce more energy" and that includes nuclear, argued Domenici. He maintains that nuclear power long has been neglected and that that has been "a giant mistake."

Opponents questioned why nuclear power should be singled out for such a largess, which they said could cost taxpayers $14 billion to $16 billion should the future power reactors fail and be abandoned.

It's "not a question about whether someone is pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the provision's sharpest critics, but whether "to put at risk the taxpayers of this country" if the reactor projects flop.

In the most aggressive attempt to spur nuclear power development in decades, the legislation would have the government underwrite with loan guarantees construction of six next-generation power reactors.

Taxpayers wouldn't pay a dime if the plants should succeed but would be liable for billions of dollars should they fail.

Wyden cited an analysis from the Congressional Budget Office that estimated the new plants probably will cost $2.1 billion to $3 billion apiece with "the risk of default on such a loan guarantee to be very high — well above 50 percent."

Other provisions in the legislation would:

Have the government build a $1.1 billion reactor in Idaho to produce hydrogen.

Recommend spending $865 million to speed research into ways to alter reactor waste chemically to reduce its volume and long-term radioactivity.

Increase other nuclear research spending by tens of millions of dollars over current levels.

The amendment offered by Wyden and Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., addressed only the loan guarantees. Attempts were expected to be made later to scale back support for the hydrogen reactor that the government would build at a federal facility in Idaho.

Nuclear industry representatives said Wyden's cost estimates for the loan guarantees were far-fetched and misleading. They say they are based on power plant projects two decades ago in which costs ballooned because of regulatory delays and licensing problems.

The new plants would be built under regulations that removed many of the past licensing hurdles. They also note that companies still would be liable for half the cost and probably would not enter into the reactor contracts if the risk of failure were high.

"We're trying to jump-start the industry again," says Richard Myers of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry trade group. "We're not looking for a handout. We're not looking for any freebies."