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Is the Obama Administration Really Serious About Nuclear Power?

By / 10.14.2010

Constellation Energy announced last weekend that it is pulling out of negotiations with the Obama administration over its pending application for Department of Energy loan guarantees to build a new reactor unit at its existing Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland. This means that for now, Constellation has scrapped all plans to expand the plant, which would have brought 1600 megawatts of low-carbon power to the market and thousands of jobs to the local economy.

What drove Constellation to walk away from further negotiations is the position taken by the White House Office of Management and Budget over the cost of the “credit subsidy fee” Constellation must pay for the guarantee. OMB set the fee at  $880 million, or 11.6 percent of the total guarantee. OMB says this fee accurately reflects the risk to taxpayers of default by Constellation, which may or may not be accurate, even presuming that shielding taxpayers from 100% of the default risk is an appropriate goal.  The problem is that no one ever expected the loan guarantee program to be priced so high, most notably the energy companies that have spent years now tied up in the application process. Constellation had argued for a fee closer to 1-2 percent, and DOE had previously made statements that indicated it was basically in agreement with that fee level, before the Obama White House got involved in the program and indicated it needed greater protections against the risk that the company won’t repay its loans. OMB has demanded a price for those protections that is basically what private lenders would charge (which is high considering the regulatory and cost risks associated with a nuclear power plant–hence the need for the loan guarantee program in the first place).

If you are an opponent of expanding nuclear power, this is great news. It means that after years of hard-fought legislative and regulatory battles in which the nuclear industry made significant headway toward getting the federal government to clear the way for a “nuclear renaissance” in the U.S., yet another battleground has been found to effectively scuttle the entire program for nuclear loan guarantees for the time being. Apparently that new battleground is the arcane world of credit scoring within the federal budget bureaucracy, most notably OMB.

By throwing sand in the gears of this final stage of the bureaucratic approval process, the White House has let the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program grind to a halt after years of promises of support to the industry for badly needed new projects. By all accounts, this controversy appears to be simply a fight between budget bureaucrats that needs to be hashed out publicly and resolved. But a less benign interpretation might suggest a deliberate bias among those in the administration in favor of spending loan guarantee dollars on renewable energy at the expense of nuclear projects. In either case, it is a problem that President Obama could easily fix with leadership from the White House, by making it clear that nuclear power is a national priority that is too important to lose new projects over bureaucratic delays.

Instead of leadership, the White House has responded with unfortunate lack of credible commitment to addressing this issue. According to Bloomberg news, OMB’s spokesperson said administration officials were surprised that Constellation gave up on negotiations.  It’s hard to believe they could really be that clueless. Everyone following the nuclear loan guarantee process knew this was a potential deal-killing problem for Constellation and other applicants, especially anyone who read Constellation’s executives say so specifically in the New York Times almost a year ago. This issue was raised in Jack Lew’s recent confirmation hearing to take over OMB, and Senate Energy Chairman Jeff Bingaman openly criticized the administration in a hearing on September 23 for holding up these loan guarantees. These complaints have been heard coming from several different corners in Washington and the energy industry for months. If I knew enough not to be shocked by Constellation’s move, how did OMB and the White House did not see this coming?

The administration’s handling of the Constellation loan application raises an important question that needs to be answered: just how committed is President Obama and his administration to expanding nuclear power? The president has said nuclear energy is part of his vision of America’s energy future (most notably in a speech ironically delivered in Maryland announcing a nuclear loan guarantee approval), but we have not seen many tangible results that the members of his administration are fully committed to making that vision a reality. After all, the Constellation announcement comes during the same week when the president was stumping for more infrastructure spending and his own economists released a report arguing that now is an ideal time to build large capital projects, both in terms of economic stimulus and low project costs for financing and labor. In the last week, the administration also cleared the way for two new solar energy projects on federal land and, even more notably, announced a $1.3 billion DOE loan guarantee approval for a massive new wind power project. All of these other initiatives this week are important and deserving of the president’s leadership in making them a national priority. But with the news from Constellation coming amidst all this other administration support for new energy and infrastructure projects, the overall picture is too easily misconstrued as the administration coordinating to put a thumb on the scale in favor of everything but nuclear energy.

Given the energy realities we are facing and the president’s own acknowledgments that nuclear energy needs to be part of a low-carbon response to meeting growing demand, President Obama can not afford to let a bureaucratic bean-counting snafu tie up billions of dollars in new investment and tens of thousands of jobs. Hopefully, this issue is essentially a policy glitch in the administration’s energy agenda, rather than something more problematic. But regardless of the cause, if President Obama is serious about including nuclear in our energy mix, then he needs to use the power of his office to take a hard look at these problems–and fix the glitch.

Photo credit: Let idea Compete