Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the U.S. doesn’t need to suspend work on new nuclear permits while investigating the crisis in Japan, where officials are struggling with reactors damaged by an earthquake and tsunami.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission review is long enough that revisions can be made to reflect findings from the examination of failures at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Daiichi nuclear station, he said.
“If you look at the process in which the NRC approves going forward with construction projects and nuclear reactors, it’s a thoughtful process,” Chu told reporters today after appearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development. “It’s a multiyear process and because of its very nature, I think these things can proceed.”
Lawmakers set aside plans today to review the Energy Department’s 2012 budget and focused on how U.S. nuclear reactors withstand what Chu referred to as the “double-barrel whammy” that crippled reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and raised the threat of a catastrophic radiation leak.
“We need to take a hard look at any lessons learned from this tragedy that can further improve the safety of our reactors,” Chu said during the subcommittee hearing.
U.S. power-plant developers are required by regulators to design plants that can survive worst-case scenarios, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, said Chu, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997.
The administration sent equipment and nuclear experts to Japan to provide advice and technical assistance, Chu said.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the NRC is constantly reviewing safety at currently operating plants and has the authority to order a shutdown of any facility that doesn’t meet standards or to upgrade safety procedures.
He declined to comment on the German government’s decision to take its seven oldest nuclear reactors offline as part of a nationwide safety review. The NRC is “constantly” evaluating standards, “and that would apply to old reactors as well as newer ones.”
Nuclear power was defended by members of the energy and water development subcommittee, including Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican and chairman of the panel.
Chu reiterated the administration’s support for nuclear power and said new reactor designs similar to Southern Co.’s Vogtle unit are safer because they rely less on electric power to pump cooling water to prevent overheating.
The planned Vogtle plant, which received $8.3 billion in loan guarantees from the Energy Department, would use the AP 1000 reactor design by Toshiba Corp.’s Westinghouse Electric Co.
The reactor “relies on the natural forces of gravity, natural circulation and compressed gases to keep the core and containment from overheating,” according to the company’s website.
Chu said the new design doesn’t require “numerous backup systems.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing the permit application for the Vogtle plant.
Carney said Obama “believes that we need to proceed responsibly with the safety and security of the American people in mind and, if we do that, that nuclear can continue to be an element in our energy arsenal.”