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US to help build first new nuclear reactors in decades

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced Wednesday that the government would loan about $6.5 billion to get the reactors built.
Plant Vogtle, a nuclear power plant near Augusta, GA.
Plant Vogtle, a nuclear power plant near Augusta, GA.

A nuclear power plant in Waynesboro, Ga., will receive the first new reactors to be constructed since 1996, thanks in large part to a $6.5 billion federal loan guarantee which Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said he would finalize on Thursday.

"The president, I want to emphasize, did make it clear that he sees nuclear energy as part of America's low carbon energy portfolio," he said during a Wednesday afternoon speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The energy produced by the new reactors will be sufficient to power nearly 1.5 million households, according to an Energy Department statement.

President Obama and members of his administration have often said that they intend to implement an "all of the above" strategy when it comes to domestic energy policy. To that end, the White House has supported increasing natural gas production even as it has also poured money into solar and wind power development projects. Wednesday's announcement suggests that nuclear power will soon come to play a larger role in that strategy.

Federal assistance couldn't come sooner for the nuclear power industry. In 2013, several nuclear plants around the nation closed up shop, the first time in 15 years that any plants had been shuttered. Banks have long been reluctant to help finance nuclear projects, in part because of the perceived danger of meltdowns. And power from nuclear energy still comes with a high price tag, thanks to cost overruns in plant construction and high per-kilowatt generation cost.

Environmental activist groups bemoaned Moniz's announcement, saying that the risks and prohibitive cost of nuclear energy made for a poor investment.

"When Wall Street has walked away from it, why should the federal government put the taxpayer on the hook?" said Greenpeace analyst Jim Riccio. He argued that stepped-up solar and wind production would be sufficient to meet the country's future energy needs, and so that's where the government should concentrate its investment.

"Given what's going on with wind and solar, we don't need any more coal plants or nuclear plants," he said.

Jamie Henn of criticized the administration's "all of the above" strategy, saying over email that it "makes as little sense as an 'all of the above' diet" and that the White House should instead focus on "dropping fossil fuels [and] consuming more healthy renewables."

Yet the administration doesn't seem likely to back down from its embrace of non-renewable energy sources any time soon. In fact, Moniz spent much of his speech defending the "all of the above" strategy as a "pathway to creating jobs and at the same time reducing carbon emissions."

"We are producing a lot more gas but we are using it as what we have sometimes referred to as a bridge to a lower carbon future," he said.