House Panel Delves Into Nuclear Energy Questions

On Capitol Hill, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee grilled the secretary of Energy about the Obama administration's support for nuclear energy, in light of the crisis in Japan. Steven Chu defended the president's overall push for energy sources that don't aggravate the greenhouse gas effect.

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As Japan struggles to gain control of its damaged nuclear complex, other countries are re-examining their own nuclear plants, and they're asking the question: Could the same thing happen to us? Germany is shutting down some of its older reactors, at least temporarily. And China has suspended approval for new power plants while safety standards are reviewed. Here in Washington, lawmakers pressed top energy officials about the future of nuclear power in the U.S.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Energy Secretary Steven Chu was cautious in talking about Japan's nuclear crisis and its meaning for the U.S. Damage to the Fukushima reactors seems more serious than Three Mile Island. But Chu confessed we don't really know what's happening, and the situation is unfolding hour by hour.

Secretary STEVEN CHU (U.S. Department of Energy): It would be premature to say anything other than we will use this opportunity to learn as best we can and consider carefully how to go forward.

HORSLEY: But when pressed by Texas congressman Gene Green during an Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, Chu said the Obama administration still supports nuclear power as part of its effort to get more electricity from sources that don't contribute to greenhouse gases.

Representative GENE GREEN (Democrat, Texas): If we shut down our expansion of nuclear power like we did after, you know, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, is there any possibility we could even get anywhere near 80 percent for clean-burning fuels?

Sec. CHU: It would certainly make it harder.

HORSLEY: The U.S. now has more than 100 nuclear reactors, and the administration's offering loan guarantees to encourage construction of more.

Greg Jaczko, who chairs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says those plants are designed to stand up to all sorts of natural disasters, including earthquakes.

Mr. GREG JACZKO (Nuclear Regulatory Commission): We try and determine what we think is the largest earthquake that can happen in an area, and we require that the nuclear power plants can withstand that kind of event. And we actually go a little bit larger than that just to make sure there's there's any uncertainties in our analysis.

HORSLEY: The Colorado congresswoman Diane DeGette was not reassured. Japan's reactors were also built to weather an earthquake, she said. It was the tsunami, and the resulting loss of backup power, that are thought to trigger their now-cascading problems.

Representative DIANA DEGETTE (Democrat, Colorado): The thing I'm concerned about is that you can't always plan for every exigency in these situations. You saw it last year with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. There were numerous failsafe mechanisms, and then each one of them failed. With something so potentially destructive, how can we ever anticipate the worst so that we could be prepared for it?

HORSLEY: Committee Chairman Fred Upton, of Michigan, defended America's nuclear safety record. His complaint is with other elements of the administration's energy agenda. Upton says President Obama's budget includes too much money for things like weatherizing older homes, and not enough money to support domestic oil and gas production.

Representative FRED UPTON (Republican, Michigan): Wishful thinking about magic-bullet alternatives is not going to heat and cool our homes, get us where we need to go, and power the businesses that provide the jobs that America wants. The reality is, we still need fossil fuels and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

HORSLEY: Louisiana congressman Bill Cassidy also complained to Secretary Chu, about the administration's plan to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Cassidy argues alternative energy sources - like wind and solar power -get too much government help, considering their smaller share of the nation's overall energy mix.

Representative BILL CASSIDY (Republican, Louisiana): How long can we subsidize solar and wind - and can we afford it - if we're going to increase it to 25 percent of our electrical use?

Sec. CHU: Well, I certainly think that, you know, wind and solar should not have any longer subsidies than oil and gas, which is about 80 or 90 years.

HORSLEY: California congressman Henry Waxman defended the investment in renewable energy sources. Waxman says the U.S. has long needed a new energy strategy, adding it shouldn't take a nuclear meltdown to get one.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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