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Nuclear energy lobbyists scramble on Capitol Hill

By Dana Bash, CNN Senior Congressional Correspondent
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Nuclear energy lobbyist speaks out
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Members of Congress nervous about nuclear energy after nuclear disaster in Japan
  • Top lobbyist says the industry's first goal is to inform lawmakers
  • Bipartisan support for nuclear power has been growing in recent years

Washington (CNN) -- Lobbyists for the nuclear energy industry rushed to Capitol Hill this week to try to reassure members of Congress and their aides, who are deeply concerned about the nuclear crisis in Japan and what it could mean for nuclear energy in the U.S.

As he walked the halls of Congress, going from meeting to meeting, Alex Flint, a top lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute, told CNN that the industry's immediate goal was to give worried lawmakers as much information as possible.

"We're trying to make sure people understand exactly what's occurring -- understand the context under which they're going to be making decisions in the future about the way in which the Congress wants to treat nuclear energy," said.

Flint is careful not to sound like he's trying to pressure Congress at such a sensitive time, but there is no question that he and other industry representatives are working to prevent support for nuclear power from unraveling on Capitol Hill.

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Flint's first afternoon stop was a meeting he helped arrange with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, a supporter of nuclear energy, for aides to all senators and Senate committees.

In a sign of the intense interest, about 150 Senate aides showed up for the briefing to hear from representatives of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying arm, and Exelon, the owner of the largest group of U.S. nuclear power plants.

Later, they repeated the briefing for aides to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the House Appropriations Committee.

Bipartisan support for nuclear power has been growing in recent years, as lawmakers look for alternative energy sources.

The crisis in Japan threatens to reverse strides the nuclear industry was making in getting financial and policy support from Congress for new nuclear power plants.

During the closed-door question-and-answer session, industry representatives handed out an 11-page information packet that was clearly designed to quell concerns.

"Given the safety record in this country ... we believe that public support for nuclear power should not decline dramatically," the industry-prepared packet says.

Despite the push, already senators who have long championed nuclear energy in the U.S. are voicing concern.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Connecticut, said he believed it was best to "slow things down" with regard to the permitting process for new nuclear power plants in the U.S., until more information is known about the situation in Japan.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she hoped nuclear energy in the U.S. was not in jeopardy, but she wasn't so sure.

"We're all watching the situation in Japan with a great deal of concern about what Mother Nature has wrought, not only to the country of Japan, but perhaps just how nuclear [energy] is viewed in the world," she said as she raced to her own meeting about the crisis.

Flint is pushing hard to keep congressional supporters from turning their backs on nuclear power.

"We have a lot of support from politicians in both parties right now. They all have questions -- they've been watching the news," he said. "Whether they're changing their mind, whether there are issues we need to address, this is a two-way conversation."

As Flint moved from congressional meeting to meeting, word came that top Democrats called for an investigation of the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants.

Without missing a beat, Flint said that was to be expected and insisted the industry would welcome a safety investigation.

To be sure, Flint is getting help from powerful lawmakers who are not wavering.

"I would hope leaders here would not try to take advantage of an opportunity to demagogue an issue and appeal to the worst, appeal to the fears in people," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona.

By the end of the day, Flint and other leading representatives of the nuclear industry had met with hundreds of people on Capitol Hill, mostly congressional aides.

It helps that Flint used to be the staff director of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

He says that gives him a better understanding of how Congress works. It also gets his phone calls returned and gets him in the door as he begins what he says will be a long process of persuading lawmakers not to give up on nuclear energy in the U.S., as they and their constituents watch the horrific images coming from Japan.

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