Keen for a Revival, the Nuclear Industry Eyes the Stimulus Package

The final bill could be a key indicator of whether Obama's "green jobs" pledge includes nuclear energy.

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With President-elect Barack Obama signaling that energy issues should be at the core of any economic stimulus package, the resurgent U.S. nuclear industry—like so many others—is pushing to make sure it's well represented.

Industry representatives and lobbyists are asking lawmakers to use the economic stimulus package, estimated to be in the range of $700 billion to $800 billion, to help revive the country's long-dormant nuclear manufacturing sector, as well as to train workers for jobs within the industry, which is now precariously poised for an expansion. In recent years, more than two dozen applications for new reactors have been filed with federal regulators, after a 30-year drought in which no nuclear reactors were approved.

The outcome of the industry's push for federal stimulus money could be revealing, because it will offer the first test of the new Congress's and the new president's support for nuclear power, as well as the scope of what they mean when they talk about creating "green jobs." In the campaign, Obama often chose his words carefully when addressing nuclear-related questions: He expressed support, but with reservation, and offered little in the way of elaboration.

If Obama is serious about using the stimulus package to create jobs and advance a clean-energy agenda, some observers say, he shouldn't exclude the nuclear industry. "Wind and solar are good jobs, but they don't produce the need for workers that a fossil fuel generation plant or a new nuclear plant will," says Mark Ayers, president of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department. "Every special interest group can argue for their own interest, but the bottom line is that we have to have a diverse portfolio that includes nuclear, wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, and coal."

Though construction on the first wave of new reactors most likely won't begin until 2011 or 2012, industry officials say the impact of a nuclear revival is already percolating through the economy. In 2008, the nuclear industry estimated that it created 9,000 new jobs as utility companies began placing orders for reactors, in particular for the precise reactor parts that have to be specially manufactured. The stimulus package, they argue, could help ensure future growth.

"We are not just building reactors. We are building an industry," says Alex Flint, the Nuclear Energy Institute's chief lobbyist. "The U.S. was clearly the global leader in making materials and components in the 1970s and 1980s, but a large part of that manufacturing base moved overseas."

In recent months, that backslide has started to reverse course, thanks in part to financial wooing by particular states. Last fall, French nuclear giant Areva announced that it would build a $363 million plant in Newport News, Va., to manufacture reactor parts. Another company, the Shaw Group, plans to open a nuclear-parts facility in Louisiana, with the potential to create about 1,400 jobs.

The stimulus package, the industry argues, could spur a more national manufacturing base, which would provide parts not only for American companies but also for foreign buyers. According to estimates, more than 100 applications for nuclear reactors are currently under consideration worldwide. "We forecast a big expansion of global nuclear component demand, and we want to make sure that as much of that demand as possible is met by domestic suppliers," Flint says. "So we are pursuing tax credits in the stimulus package, trying to create tax incentives for job creation."

The industry, along with organized labor, is also pushing for job-training funding. At the moment, it faces a looming workers' shortage. Many are near retirement age, and university programs have only recently noticed an uptick in interest in nuclear engineering. "My proposals to the nuclear industry include setting up on-site training centers that we would build ourselves," says Ayers. "We would recruit from the local community and help train them to be craftsmen. Hopefully, these would be high-paying, life-long careers." Ayers says that the groups he represents spend $800 million a year on job training.