Despite the Japan disaster, the U.S. wants to expand nuclear plant construction and sees nuclear power as a key part of clean energy efforts, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said on March 16.
Testifying at a House subcommittee hearing about President Obama's request for energy funds in the fiscal year 2012 budget, Chu defended the U.S. nuclear industry, which provides about 20% of America's power through 104 nuclear plants.
Nuclear energy "has an important role to play in our energy portfolio," Chu said, noting that the president's budget asks Congress for $36 billion in loan guarantee authority to "jumpstart the domestic nuclear industry."
Asked by Texas Democratic Congressman Joe Barton if Obama still supports nuclear construction in the United States, given the crisis in Japan following a potent quake and tsunami there last week, Chu answered:
"We are asking for loan guarantees. The present budget is also calling for small modular reactors. That position has not been changed."
Barton responded: "So that's a yes?"
"Yes," Chu answered.
"Given, again, what has happened, do you and the president want Congress to support the full $36 billion that you have put in the budget?" Barton asked.
"Yes," Chu said.
The US nuclear industry has largely stalled, with no new plants built to completion since the March 28, 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, a partial reactor meltdown that led to "very small" releases of radioactivity, according to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
No one was killed and no immediate injuries were linked to the incident, but it stirred an outcry that blocked further expansion of the US nuclear program.
"I think the events unfolding in the Japan incidents actually appear to be more serious than Three Mile Island. To what extent we don't really know now," Chu added.
"I think we will, no matter what happens, going forward try to take the lessons of Fukushima and apply them to our existing fleet and any future reactors we will be building."
An attempt to launch nuclear renaissance in the United States has faltered due to heavy costs associated with reactor construction, which the Obama administration hopes can be overcome through government-backed loan guarantees.
Obama vowed on March 15 to "further improve" the safety of U.S. atomic facilities.
The NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko said the commission is currently reviewing 12 applications for new nuclear reactors.
"It is important that the NRC maintain our commitment to continuous improvement," Jaczko said in prepared remarks ahead of his testimony, which was to begin at 1730 GMT.
"We also, however, have an additional imperative, in light of the prevailing budgetary climate and the strong desire by many to see federal agencies do more with less."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011
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