When President Obama announced this week that he would offer $8 billion in loan guarantees to break ground on the first new American nuclear plant in three decades, he pledged to hold the plant to "the highest and strictest safety standards."
But the Georgia nuclear facility he selected for the government's first infusion of financial support has yet to clear the approval process it would need to get a green light for construction. And that process has been slowed by Nuclear Regulatory Commission concerns about the design. Critics have asked whether Obama, who has received strong nuclear industry financial support during past election campaigns, is trying to speed the process back up.
In an October letter sent to Westinghouse, which is designing new nuclear facilities proposed for Georgia and South Carolina, the NRC called for modifications to the shield building -- a steel and concrete structure that would be erected around the reactor to protect it from earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, or even a terrorist attack.
"The NRC has determined that the proposed design of the shield building will require modifications in some specific areas to ensure its ability to perform its safety function," the letter said.
In a pointed press release issued the same day, the commission said it had informed Westinghouse that the company "has not demonstrated that certain structural components of the … shield building can withstand design basis loads."
"We've been talking to Westinghouse regularly about the shield building since October 2008, and we've consistently laid out our questions to the company," Michael Johnson, director of the NRC's Office of New Reactors, said in the statement. "This is a situation where fundamental engineering standards will have to be met before we can begin determining whether the shield building meets the agency's requirements."
White House officials pointed out that the $8.3 billion in loan guarantees would only be approved if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determines that the plant's design "fulfills the regulatory requirements for a construction and operating license."
White House officials also said that because the NRC is an independent agency, the administration would be prohibited from influencing its decision-making. The Georgia plant was selected, in part, because it was so far along in the NRC liscensing process, administration officials said.
Nuclear Executive Met with Rahm Emanuel
But some critics have voiced concern that the president jumped the gun by offering the financing before the design has been formally approved. And they were especially alarmed that the White House issued a press release touting the Westinghouse design for its safety enhancements.
"The president said yesterday that the design is safe," said Tom Clements, the Southeastern Nuclear Campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, a global environmental group. "It was really very stunning to hear this. In making those statements, he's basically second-guessing the license review process and apparently trying to short circuit it. I think he's playing politics with the review process itself."
Clements said one reason he is alarmed is because of the president's ties to the nuclear industry. Executives at the Illinois-based utility Exelon -- a leader in the nuclear energy field -- contributed at least $227,000 to Mr. Obama's campaigns for the United States Senate and for president, according to a review by The New York Times, which noted that two top Exelon officials, Frank M. Clark, executive vice president, and John W. Rogers Jr., a director, were among Obama's largest fund-raisers.
In September, White House visitor logs show Exelon CEO John W. Rowe visited with Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, for nearly an hour in the West Wing. Rowe is also a past chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, which advocates for nuclear energy.
White House officials pointed out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is independent, and not subject to pressure from the administration.
Steven Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said Southern Co., the company building the Georgia plant, has made clear it understands the federal commitment is conditional.
"There is no final loan guarantee without an approved design and without an approved license application from the NRC," Kerekes said. "This permits Southern to continue on the investment path it is on while providing a measure of assurance to financing institutions."