POTTSTOWN, Pa. – Calling nuclear power an overregulated industry that needs a jump-start from Washington, President Bush on Wednesday pitched his plan to expand nuclear power generation by dealing with radioactive waste, lessening regulations and reviving nuclear fuel processing.
The backdrop for the president's effort was the Limerick Generating Station, a nuclear plant operated by Excelon Corp. about 40 miles from Philadelphia. Bush donned a white hard hat for a brief tour, then spoke to employees in a sweltering tent set up in the shadow of the plant's two enormous cooling towers.
Bush argued that nuclear power is abundant, affordable, safe and clean.
"For the sake of economic security and national security, the United States of America must aggressively move forward with the construction of nuclear power plants," Bush said. "Other countries are."
Some environmentalists have abandoned their opposition to nuclear power, arguing it is needed to address climate change because reactors do not produce "greenhouse" gases as do fossil fuels. Other environmentalists are not convinced, citing worries about reactor waste and safety.
"The debate needs to fully address such vital issues as the exorbitant cost of building new nuclear facilities, the potential proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the disposal of radioactive wastes," said Thomas B. Cochran, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's nuclear program.
Bush's quick visit to the Philadelphia area was also aimed at helping vulnerable Republicans seeking re-election this fall — though not all of the state's high-profle GOP candidates took advantage of the presidential appearance.
At a $1,000-a-ticket reception at a downtown hotel, Bush raised money for GOP Reps. Jim Gerlach and Mike Fitzpatrick, prime Democratic targets who represent suburban districts narrowly won by John Kerry in 2004.
But other Republicans facing re-election did not appear alongside Bush. Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, in one of the nation's toughest re-election fights, needed to cast votes in the Senate, according to his campaign. Likewise, GOP Rep. Curt Weldon, who represents another Philadelphia suburb that Democrats are eyeing, remained in Washington to work.
Bush's polling in Pennsylvania matches his nationally, where it has dipped to record lows in the low-30s.
Weldon press secretary John Tomaszewski said the lawmaker wasn't invited and had votes all day in the House. Asked if Weldon was distancing himself from the president, Tomaszewski said "absolutely not — that's ridiculous."
Limerick is the second nuclear power plant Bush has seen in less than a year. He is the first president to visit a nuclear power plant since former President Carter went to Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant after it partially melted down in 1979, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Bush touted a range of ways he wants to make America less dependent on hydrocarbons, including promoting ethanol-, hydrogen- and battery-powered cars, clean-coal technology, wind and solar power and liquefied natural gas.
"If we haven't done something about our energy situation, we're not going to be able to compete in the world," the president said.
There are 100 nuclear power plants scattered across 31 U.S. states, but has an order has not been placed for a new reactor since 1973. A broad energy bill Bush signed last summer provides incentives for building again, and Bush said interest is up eight-fold.
The public is evenly divided on the question of building more nuclear plants, recent polling has found.
The administration also wants Congress to approve $250 million — a small downpayment — to accelerate a decade-long research program into reprocessing nuclear fuel, which advocates say would pose much less risk and reduce the amount of reactor waste that eventually would have to be buried.
The United States abandoned nuclear fuel reprocessing in the 1970s because of proliferation concerns.
"Nuclear power helps us protect the environment and nuclear power is safe," the president said.