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Energy secretary defends U.S. nuclear industry

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Official: Continue nuclear power in US
  • Steven Chu says U.S. nuclear plants are protected against earthquakes and tsunamis
  • Chu says nuclear power is a key component of U.S. energy plans
  • Obama's budget includes $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear construction
  • Department of Energy has over 30 people in Japan helping with disaster response

Washington (CNN) -- Energy Secretary Steven Chu sought to reassure Congress on Tuesday that America's nuclear power plants are sufficiently protected against the kind of disaster now facing Japan.

He also insisted that, contrary to assertions of many skeptics within the environmental movement and elsewhere, nuclear power needs to play a key role in the development of a more balanced U.S. energy policy.

Chu said federal authorities responsible for overseeing U.S. nuclear plants have accounted for combined earthquake and tsunami scenarios similar to what led to the crisis in Japan.

"The American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place to ensure that our nuclear power is generated safely and responsibly," Chu told members of a House subcommittee. Officials are "committed to learning from Japan's experience as we work to continue to strengthen America's nuclear industry."

The secretary said that "whenever there is a reactor near a (potential) earthquake site, we look to what's the maximum size of that particular earthquake that geologists (say) can ever happen, and we design considerably above that."

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President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2012 budget request includes $36 billion in loan guarantee authority to help spur growth in nuclear industry. The push to expand such power has gained significant momentum in recent years, a reversal in attitudes adopted after the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster in Pennsylvania.

Members of the House panel expressed a need for caution in moving forward with nuclear power but appeared generally supportive of the administration's stance.

"As a country, I can't imagine how we go forward ... if we don't have nuclear in the mix," said Rep. Chakah Fattah, D-Pennsylvania.

Other countries have reacted to the Japanese disaster with a greater sense of alarm. Thousands of German demonstrators urged their leaders Monday night to shut down nuclear power plants in their country. Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced a three-month moratorium on the extension of the operation periods for nuclear plants in her country.

Chu noted Tuesday that his department has more than 30 people on the ground in Japan to assist with disaster response operations.

"Officials from the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other agencies have maintained close contact with Japanese officials and have provided the Japanese government with expertise in a variety of areas," he said.

The secretary indicated that U.S. authorities are closely monitoring radioactive emissions in Japan and analyzing potential outcomes "based on a variety of scenarios."

Washington has sent "a great deal" of monitoring equipment to Tokyo in order to help track radiation and provide "fair warning" if major metropolitan areas are endangered, he said.

CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.