Nuclear-power executives and lobbyists met with lawmakers in Washington this week as the industry sought to allay concern that the reactor crisis in Japan could be repeated in the U.S.
Representatives of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington-based trade group, and Exelon Corp. (EXC), the biggest U.S. operator of nuclear reactors, briefed lawmakers and their staffs. Their message was that U.S. plants can withstand disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami that crippled nuclear reactors in Japan and raised the threat of a catastrophic radiation leak.
Calls to limit nuclear plants have been made by environmental groups and lawmakers such as Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, who is seeking a moratorium on permits in seismically active areas. The industry’s best response is to answer questions on Capitol Hill rather than adopting a hard-sell approach, said Michael McKenna, a lobbyist who represented oil and gas companies to Congress after last year’s BP Plc Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“You don’t really lobby at a time like this, because everyone, including lobbyists, is stunned and appalled at the scope of the disaster,” McKenna, president of of MMR Strategies Inc., said in an e-mail. “People on the Hill, in the administration, in the media want facts as soon as possible and as accurately and completely as possible.”
Before the disaster in Japan last week, builders and operators of nuclear plants were seeking support from Democrats and Republicans for a new generation of reactors. The U.S. hasn’t issued a construction license for a new reactor in more than 30 years.
President Barack Obama included nuclear power in a “clean energy” agenda and urged Congress to approve $54 billion in U.S. loan guarantees for new plants, a threefold increase. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a House panel today that the administration stands by that plan.
“We’re putting the facts out so people can be aware of the regulatory regime in this country, and how we operate our plants,” Derrick Freeman, senior director of federal programs for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in an interview.
Anthony Pietrangelo, chief nuclear officer with the institute, and Charles Pardee, chief operating officer for the generation unit of Chicago-based Exelon, led a briefing for Senate aides on March 14, according to Bill Wicker, a spokesman for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Industry officials met with congressional staff and members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees nuclear policy in the U.S., Freeman said.
The Nuclear Energy Institute spent about $1.69 million lobbying Congress and the White House last year, according to records filed with the Senate. Twenty-two utilities and utility trade groups each spent more than that on advocacy, often on a range of issues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
The institute contributed more than $322,000 to congressional candidates through its political action committee, according to the center, which tracks campaign spending. Executives and employees of utilities also contributed to political campaigns.
Exelon spent more than $3.7 million lobbying last year. The company’s executives and employees contributed more than $514,000 to congressional candidates, including $10,000 to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican.
Even longtime supporters of nuclear energy, such as Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, have said new precautions may be needed.
“We will need to understand what failures in design could have contributed to the problems in Japan, whether they could have been prevented, and whether similar design flaws exist in reactors here in this country,” Bingaman, who received $16,000 in campaign contributions from Exelon employees and executives from 2005 through last year, said in a statement. Bingaman has since announced he won’t seek re-election in 2012.
The damage at Japan’s nuclear plants has produced questions about U.S. reactors near geological fault lines, including PG&E Corp. (PCG)’s Diablo Canyon in California.
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