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ALEX COHEN, host:

Tens of billions of dollars in loan guarantees could become available to companies that build nuclear power plants. That's thanks to a one-sentence provision found in the energy bill recently passed in the Senate. The money could come in handy. There are plans in the works to build 28 new nuclear reactors in the U.S., and they won't come cheap. The price of a single plant is about $5 billion.

Matt Wald wrote about this provision of the energy bill in today's New York Times. And he joins us now. Welcome back to DAY TO DAY, Matt.

Mr. MATT WALD (New York Times): Thanks, Alex.

COHEN: So Matt, this money isn't a loan, it's a loan guarantee. So what exactly will it allow nuclear power companies to do?

Mr. WALD: Well, the nuclear industry says, look, it's been 30 years since we built a plant. The lenders are not confident we still remember how to do this stuff. And they're not going to lend us money unless somebody promises to guarantee the loan.

COHEN: How did this one-sentence provision find its way into the energy bill?

Mr. WALD: That's a good question. The industry lobbied for it. These bills are enormous and people tend not to look them over too closely before they pass. And this one got through mostly undebated. But only in a bill that passed the Senate version. The House is a lot less sympathetic. And I'm not confident that it will end up in the final law. But it is a possibility.

COHEN: Now, President Bush has said he's in favor of expanding production of nuclear energy. Any idea where the administration might stand on this provision?

Mr. WALD: It turns out that the Treasury is not too enthusiastic about loan guarantees. And they may not be enthusiastic about this huge volume. But there's an open question about what this costs. If the industry actually builds the plants successfully and pays back the loans, then the guarantee has cost the taxpayer nothing. On the other hand, if the industry starts out on plants it can't finish, or the plants never make money, then the taxpayer and the Treasury could be left holding the bag.

COHEN: This legislation hinges on the idea of nuclear power being a clean option. In your opinion, just how clean is nuclear at this point?

Mr. WALD: Well, it has an extremely, extremely low output of carbon dioxide. There's a little bit of work that goes into making the fuel and that's about it. The actual releases in accident-free operation are really quite small. We have not quite figured out what to do with the waste, but we've demonstrated that we know how to handle that at least for decades. So the answer is, if you're worried about carbon dioxide, if you're worried about conventional air pollutants, it's clean.

COHEN: Nuclear power hasn't exactly been the most popular option with many Americans for quite some time now. Are you sensing at all a kind of a shift in attitude towards nuclear as an option for energy?

Mr. WALD: It depends where you are. I don't think it's popular in California. In places in the East, and especially in the South, where there are already nuclear plants, there are lots of people who say, sure, build another one next to the ones we've got. It's jobs. It's taxes. We need the energy. So it varies.

But I also have to say it's not public opinion that builds plants, it's a public that is at least willing, not hostile. And it's bankers and lawyers and people with money.

COHEN: Matt, just how soon might we actually start to see some of these new nuclear plants in operation?

Mr. WALD: Now, that turns out to be the $64,000 question. There are people who say they may apply for a license by the end of this year, but that won't actually commit them to build. I think realistically 2015 or 2016 at the earliest, but maybe later than that.

COHEN: Matt Wald is a reporter for the New York Times. Thanks so much, Matt.

Mr. WALD: Thanks, Alex.

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