House Panel Delves Into Nuclear Energy Questions
: 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.
HORSLEY: 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.
: 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?
HORSLEY: It would certainly make it harder.
HORSLEY: Greg Jaczko, who chairs the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says those plants are designed to stand up to all sorts of natural disasters, including earthquakes.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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.
: 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?
HORSLEY: 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: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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