Cautious Reconsideration, Not Rejection, of Nuclear Energy in Washington

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Last year, President Obama was calling investment in new nuclear power plants “a necessity.” He reiterated his call for nuclear investment in his State of the Union this year and in his budget proposal, which calls for $36 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear construction.  

Then, in the last 72 hours, two hydrogen explosions rocked Japan in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami and earthquake.

Now, Washington is readying its response, with key lawmakers urging caution, rather than a reconsideration, of domestic nuclear policy.

On the Senate side, the Energy Committee staff is organizing an afternoon informational briefing on Capitol Hill with the Nuclear Energy Institute, the main lobby group of the nuclear industry.

The Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) was one of the co-sponsors of a new bill introduced last Thursday to create a public-private project the design and construction of small nuclear reactors on Thursday. President Obama’s budget also includes money to back small reactor design.

A spokesman said it’s still too early to say how events in Japan might affect Bingaman’s position.

“Obviously the tragedy unfolding in Japan would cause anyone to pause,” Senate Energy Committee spokesman Bill Wicker said. “I think everyone here pro- nuclear, anti-nuclear and in between, probably wants to see what can be learned. This is an ongoing emergency.”

That echoes Senator Joe Lieberman’s (CT-I) comments on Sunday, that a reconsideration, not an all-out rejection, of nuclear power is warranted. “I don’t want to stop the building of nuclear power plants,” Lieberman told CBS’ Face the Nation. “But I think we should quietly, quickly put the brakes on.” (New York Senator Chuck Schumer was less circumspect. “I’m willing to look at nuclear. As I’ve always said, it has to be done safely and carefully,” he told NBC's Meet the Press on Sunday.)

In the House, a previously schedule hearing on nuclear power is being refocused from budgetary items to also include safety concerns. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko are among the witnesses scheduled to testify.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is not abandoning its support of nuclear energy. “It remains a part of the president’s overall energy plan,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday. “When we talk about reaching a clean energy standard, it is a vital part of that.”

All the political maneuvering is being watched closely in Georgia, where the first new nuclear reactors in thirty years are up for approval. The Plant Vogtle project, planned for construction on the Savannah River along the Georgia-South Carolina border, has already been granted a $8.3 billion conditional loan guarantee from the Obama administration.

“The spin machine is already happening,” said Sara Barczak, a project director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which opposes the project. “The reality is that this is a dangerous energy source. While the chance of something like this happening is small, the magnitude if something does goes wrong is huge.”

In a statement on its website, Southern Company, the utility behind the project, said that "all of our plants, like every U.S. nuclear power plant, are designed to withstand an earthquake equal to the plant’s maximum projected seismic event." It called nuclear power plants "an important component of the nation’s critical infrastructure," and noted that "we take very seriously our obligation and on-going commitment to protect the health and safety of the public, our employees and the environment."

The chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said last week that he expected a decision on whether to approve the reactor design for the Georgia project by this summer.

Map of nuclear reactors and fault lines in the United States, via The Takeaway.