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Obama's nuclear power plant push: Is there a building boom ahead?

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The Department of Energy is offering $8 billion in loan guarantees to break ground on a new nuclear power plant in Maryland. Will this be the start of a nuclear building boom?

The Department of Energy is offering $8 billion in loan guarantees to break ground on a new nuclear power plant in Maryland. Will this be the start of a nuclear building boom?

Speaking in Lanham, Maryland, President Obama outlined a simple objective: Jump start nuclear power plant construction in the U.S., which hasn't built a new plant in three decades.

Obama touted the Maryland construction project as a way to create jobs and deliver more efficient power. Obama also noted that the U.S. government will continue to offer loan guarantees to build more nuclear facilities.

Among Obama's notable remarks:

In order to truly harness our potential in clean energy we're going to have to do more, and that's why we're here.  In the near term, as we transition to cleaner energy sources, we're going to have to make some tough decisions about opening up new offshore areas for oil and gas development.  We'll need to make continued investments in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies, even as we build greater capacity in renewables like wind and solar.  And we're going to have to build a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in America.

And.

Our competitors are racing to create jobs and command growing energy industries.  And nuclear energy is no exception.  Japan and France have long invested heavily in this industry.  Meanwhile, there are 56 nuclear reactors under construction around the world:  21 in China alone; six in South Korea; five in India.  And the commitment of these countries is not just generating the jobs in those plants; it's generating demand for expertise and new technologies.

As noted before, the timing does seem right for a nuclear power building boom and modern plants would make sense to go along with a smart grid. However, starting these projects will require a little more than a few loan guarantees. Obama acknowledges that there will be disagreements over nuclear power. Simply put, you can expect a big scrum over nuclear power, but once a few of these plants are built opposition is likely to fade.

The calculus for nuclear power was detailed in September. It goes like this:

Pro:

  • Nuclear power is clean and emits no carbon dioxide.
  • Popular opinion is coming around to nuclear power.
  • Next generation reactors are more efficient and cheap.
  • The systems that power nuclear plants are smart and feature automated safety features and better shutdown processes.

Con:

  • Nuclear plants still cost more than fossil fuel versions.
  • You still have to store the waste somewhere.
  • When there is a rare accident the ramifications can be large.
  • These plants are big terrorist targets (France has its reactors inside double containment buildings).
  • Not in my backyard (NIMBY) is prominent.

The debate over nuclear power plant construction is just beginning. Consider a few comments from Smart Planet readers the last time the nuclear topic came up:

People seem to forget that Uranium is not a freely accessible, inexhaustible material. It is getting harder to find and ever more expensive to process. And so far its mining and processing is extremely dependent on fossil fuels. By all means go ahead and build your big glowing basilicas, but beyond 2070 you won't be able afford to fuel them.

Vs.

Building next generation plants based on the '4S' model developed in Japan, nuclear power can be safe, environmentally sound, and less expensive per watt generated than fossil fueled plants. Using breeder technology, these reactors can be permanently sealed and buried underground, beyond the reach of terrorists.

They will run at full power for 30 years before their output drops to below half of its initial capacity. No refueling costs, and no storing of the wastes once they run down - the wastes will remain contained in the plant permanently.

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Larry Dignan

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan is editor-in-chief of SmartPlanet and ZDNet. He is also editorial director of TechRepublic. Previously, he was an editor at eWeek, Baseline and CNET News. He has written for WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, New York Times and Financial Planning. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Delaware. He is based in New York but resides in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure