Environmental Groups Question Obama's Support for Nuclear Industry

Just as President Obama was publicly addressing the fallout from the cascading nuclear power plant disaster in Japan Thursday, the CEO of one of the largest nuclear power suppliers in the U.S. was lined up to speak at a closed-door gathering of top fundraisers for President Obama's reelection.

James E. Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, the nation's third largest nuclear energy supplier, was asked to lay out his fundraising plans for the 2012 Democratic National Convention, an effort he is undertaking as the host committee co-chair. The evening before, he was among those invited to join a discussion of the president's re-election fundraising plans at a private dinner in downtown Washington, D.C.

"It's troubling," said Dan Hirsch, a nuclear safety advocate in Southern California. Obama "is cozying up to large financial interests that might become donors and who wish our policy to be blind to the implications of this catastrophe."

Since his earliest days in the U.S. Senate, President Obama has had a close relationship with the nation's nuclear energy suppliers, and he brought his support for nuclear power with him to the White House. In his 2010 State of the Union address, he laid out his ambitions without ambiguity, calling for "building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country."

Obama has not only championed nuclear power, he has set aside millions of dollars for loan guarantees aimed at helping spur that new construction. His 2012 budget proposal calls for an additional $36 billion to triple the amount of money used to guarantee loans for nuclear plants.

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So far one proposed plant in Georgia has been given a loan guarantee, completing a process that requires independent regulators to sign off on the design.

The White House points out that nuclear energy is just one piece of its portfolio as the president attempts to address global warming and curtail greenhouse gas emissions -- but that it accounts for 70 percent of the carbon-free energy currently being produced. And administration officials have long rejected suggestions that Obama is influenced by donors, noting that the president has had so many donors, supporters can be found on either side of just about any contentious issue.

"The administration's energy priorities are based solely on how best to build a 21st century, clean energy economy," said Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman. "That policy is not about picking one energy source over another, in fact it is about setting a bold but achievable clean energy goal, and providing industry the flexibility on how best to increase their clean energy share."

That includes, he said, the "responsible development of a broad range of energy sources -- including renewables like wind, solar, and homegrown biofuels, as well as natural gas, clean coal, and nuclear power."

Obama And Exelon

Still, Obama's contact with top executives in the nuclear industry, in particular, has attracted criticism from some quarters of the environmental community -- even from those who otherwise support him. The bulk of that attention has been focused on the nation's top nuclear supplier, the Exelon Corporation.

Exelon is a Chicago-based energy giant that has invested heavily in Obama's campaign, with two executives serving as top fundraisers in 2008, and more than $200,000 in contributions coming from the company's employees. Since the inauguration, Exelon Chairman John W. Rowe's name has appeared at least twice on White House visitor logs for appointments with then chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel, and USA Today reported that he was tapped by the Obama White House to help lobby Congress on climate change legislation.

Another major utility, Duke Energy, also has been building a record of support for Obama. In addition to overseeing the Democratic convention host committee, Rogers is also personally a donor, and his company recently agreed to guarantee a $10 million line of credit to help get convention planning underway -- an arrangement first reported by the Charlotte Observer last week.

Both Democratic National Committee officials and Will Miller, who is acting executive director of the committee overseeing the convention, said Duke Energy's offer to back the line of credit was intended to help Charlotte win in its bid to host the convention, and had nothing to do with the president.

"They thought it was good business to help secure the convention, which is good for the region," said Will Miller, acting executive director of the committee overseeing the convention. "Duke was interested in helping the bid and said they'd be glad to put up credit security to help enhance the bid."

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Duke Energy spokesman Tom Williams said Rogers's efforts are less about supporting Obama's reelection than they are about economic development for Charlotte, N.C., where the convention will be held. "He has supported both Republicans and Democrats," Williams said. "Duke supported the effort to attract the Republican convention in 2000. This is all about promoting Charlotte."

That said, Williams acknowledged the company does have a policy agenda in Washington, and has not been shy about pursuing it. Among the company's goals are climate legislation -- backed by the president -- that includes efforts to promote nuclear energy. They also support Obama's efforts to promote federal backing for nuclear plant construction. The company is considering building two reactors in South Carolina.

Obama: Nuclear Power 'An Important Part of Our Own Energy Future'

Some environmentalists tell ABC News the overlap of Obama's agenda and the industry's has at times made them uneasy. Now, scenes of smoldering nuclear reactors in Japan have heightened their concerns that the nuclear industry may have too much sway with this administration.

"Unfortunately, I think they have committed themselves to this position," said Dave Hamilton, the director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program. "Even today, they seem resolute."

The president addressed the Japanese disaster and the fears it has stoked in the U.S. during remarks to the press on Thursday. From a podium in the Rose Garden, the president announced he has ordered a comprehensive review of the safety of domestic nuclear plants.

Obama reiterated his belief that nuclear power remains "an important part of our own energy future." He repeated a message that has been offered by the nuclear industry in recent days, saying that U.S. "nuclear power plants have undergone exhaustive study and have been declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies."

"When we see a crisis like the one in Japan, we have a responsibility to learn from this event, and to draw from those lessons to ensure the safety and security of our people," he said.

Williams, the Duke Energy spokesman, said the company agrees. "We need to continue to develop and advance it and learn from what happened in Japan," he told ABC News, adding, "You're not going to be able to address climate change without nuclear energy."

The president's remarks brought a different reaction from the group Friends of the Earth. "President Obama has talked a lot in the past about humility, but his continued support for dangerous new reactors looks more like hubris," said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth U.S. "It's irresponsible and puts the public at risk."

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