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President Obama's budget made it clear he is serious about nuclear energy. His proposal: To triple the government money available to guarantee loans for companies that want to build nuclear plants.

As NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, the president's commitment delights some electric companies, but upsets some of his strongest supporters.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Building a nuclear plant is kind of like trying to get a mortgage these days to build a house.

Mr. JAMES CONNAUGHTON (Executive Vice President, Constellation Energy Group Inc.): Maybe I'm going to have somebody co-sign the loan. Now, they never pay any money, but they're there just in case.

SHOGREN: That's James Connaughton, executive vice president of Constellation Energy. His company is hoping to get loan guarantees to build another reactor at its nuclear plant in Calvert Cliffs, Maryland.

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: We just need the federal backstop in order to attract the private sector investment that will make that possible.

SHOGREN: Most companies say they can't build the plants without the loan guarantees. Congress and President Bush created the nuclear loan guarantee program about five years ago. The $18 billion already promised probably would get only a few new plants built. It won't start the nuclear renaissance electric companies want.

But the companies say the additional $36 billion the president is proposing could do that and help Mr. Obama meet his goals of slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. TOM WILLIAMS (Duke Energy Corporation): Nuclear is the only generation out there that produces power 24/7 with no carbon emissions at all.

SHOGREN: Tom Williams of Duke Energy says wind and solar only produce electricity when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. So he says nuclear power is needed to help the country cut greenhouse gases 80 percent by 2050. That's what the president and many scientists say is necessary to help avert catastrophic climate change.

The president's nuclear proposal could play another crucial role in helping him address climate change. It could help woo Republicans and moderate Democrats to support a sweeping global warming law. The House passed a bill last year, but similar legislation is stuck in the Senate. Williams says the loan guarantees could improve its odds.

Mr. WILLIAMS: There's a lot of support for new nuclear from the people who are currently not supporting the climate bill. And by offering up this, it should help bridge the gap.

Mr. CARL POPE (Executive Director, Sierra Club): If you offer a bunch of utilities $54 billion in loan guarantees, they will probably round up a few senators to support you. That's correct.

SHOGREN: That's Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club environmental group.

Mr. POPE: That's how Washington is working these days. That doesn't mean I like it.

SHOGREN: Pope and many other environmental activists usually support President Obama, but they oppose his loan guarantee proposal. They stress that nuclear plants are inherently dangerous because the waste from them stays hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years. And the country still hasn't come up with a long-term plan to store the stuff. Plus, Pope says nuclear plants are so expensive to build that they're a bad economic risk for taxpayers.

Mr. POPE: They need the loan guarantees because investors are afraid that they'll never finish the plant, or that the plants will cost twice as much as they were supposed to and will never be able to sell affordable electricity.

SHOGREN: Still, Pope says loan guarantees for the nuclear industry would not sour environmental groups on a climate bill.

Mr. POPE: I don't think these kinds of loan guarantees would push us into opposition to a climate bill that would otherwise save the planet.

SHOGREN: But even if the president's nuclear overture wins over a few Republicans and moderate Democrats, the climate bill still faces a lot of other hurdles.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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