U.S. nuclear loan-guarantee program is testing how much risk the US government is willing to take

Constellation Energy Group Inc. said last week it was pulling out of talks on a $7.5 billion loan guarantee to build a reactor at its Calvert Cliffs facility in Maryland.  Constellation Energy Group’s Chief Operating Officer Michael Wallace told the Energy Department that they felt the estimated $880 million the company would have to pay the Treasury Department was “shockingly high”.

Still, that’s only 12% of the loan guarantee, and only 7% of the estimated (pre-financed) cost of building a nuclear plant.  Compare that to low-risk lender qualifications for buying a home in this country and it doesn’t seem so shockingly high.  Traditionally lenders required a down payment of at least 20% of the home’s purchase price for a home mortgage, and to qualify for owner-builder construction loans, the down payment can be up to 30 percent of the requested loan amount.  Seems to me the industry is getting a better break than the American public right now.

A senior energy and environment analyst for a Milwaukee-based brokerage whined that the administration is offering terms no better than Constellation could get from private investors, yet we are not seeing private investors lining up to get a piece of this action-especially considering that these projects are projected to have a 50% loan default rate.

If the administration must support a nuclear renaissance, it is irresponsible of them to not consider limiting the risk that taxpayers will be stuck with should a nuclear utility default, and the Office of Management and Budget is doing just that by requiring these fees.

Constellation’s decision probably places NRG Energy Inc., a Princeton, New Jersey-based power producer, in the lead for the next loan-guarantee award.  However, if the fees are this large, it might be a victory that NRG and its partners will also not necessarily want, dooming that project too.

NRG is seeking a guarantee to add two units at its South Texas power plant in Matagorda County.  The company is also seeking to secure Japanese government financing, but that is also contingent upon the project securing the US loan guarantee.  Perhaps this is a project that needs to be doomed.  Clearly the building of nuclear plants are so high risk that the private sector appears unwilling to take on that risk, without the US government (read US taxpayer) bearing the brunt of the risk.  If they put it up to a vote, I certainly wouldn’t vote to put my money into such a high risk project, would you?

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