Energy secretary: Obama still committed to nuclear plants

President Obama still supports construction of new nuclear plants in the United States, despite the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Wednesday morning.

In a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Chu was asked by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) whether Obama still supported “a rebirth” of nuclear power.

Nuclear energy had become a popular idea on Capitol Hill in recent years, prized by some Democrats for its low greenhouse-gas emissions, and by Republicans seeking more domestic energy. But the catastrophic impact of last week’s earthquake and tsunami on the nuclear power plants along Japan’s northeastern coast is raising new questions for governments to consider.

At first, Chu was equivocal, saying, “The president, the administration, believes that we have to be looking very very closely at the events in Japan. It would be premature to say anything other than ‘We will use this opportunity to learn as best we can.’ ”

But Barton pressed: “I’m not sure what you just said. Does the president support new nuclear power plant construction in the United States?”

Chu responded that the federal budget called for support for new nuclear plants. “That position hasn’t been changed.”

“So that’s a ‘yes’?” Barton responded.

“That’s a ‘yes,’ ” Chu said.

In the same hearing, Chu described the Energy Department’s response to the Japanese crisis. He said that 39 department personnel had been dispatched to Japan, ready to detect radiation at U.S. government installations and to measure radiation levels from specialized aircraft.

Other countries have announced changes to their own nuclear programs in the wake of the Japanese crisis: Germany has shut down some older reactors for testing, and Switzerland announced a freeze on new construction.

The Obama administration has made no such moves, although Chu said that the U.S. would seek to use the situation in Japan crisis to design safety improvements at its own reactors.

Obama has embraced nuclear power as recently as the State of the Union address, in which he listed it among natural gas and renewable energy sources that needed to be exploited.

“We will need them all,” Obama said then, to reach a goal of obtaining 80 percent of the country’s energy from “clean” sources by 2035.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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