March 18 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Senate Energy Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that while the nuclear emergency in Japan is “very significant and serious,” it is no repeat of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine 25 years ago.
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We begin the show with Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman, who joins us in the studio.
Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, Senator, you are fully briefed. Is this Japanese disaster the worst nuclear disaster in history? And how’s it going to end up?
SENATOR JEFF BINGAMAN: I don’t think it’s the worst in history. I think Chernobyl’s the worst in history.
HUNT: So it won’t be quite that bad?
BINGAMAN: Right. I don’t believe it will. But there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen. And I don’t pretend to have the answer to that, but I think it’s clearly a very significant and serious problem that we hope both the Japanese and ourselves can learn a great deal from.
HUNT: You, along with President Obama and others, have said that nuclear has to be part of the future U.S. energy strategy or policy. With this tragedy, is the nuclear renaissance over, though?
BINGAMAN: Well, the nuclear - the so-called nuclear renaissance has not really occurred in a meaningful way. We have something in the range of 20 applications before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build new nuclear plants, but I think there’s only one now that is under construction. And we have 104 plants that are operating. And so I think the thing that’s held the nuclear power industry back in recent years has been the economics. It just costs so much to build a nuclear power plant compared -
HUNT: But this isn’t going to make that any easier, is it?
BINGAMAN: No, there’s no question this raises a whole new set of questions.
BINGAMAN: And depending upon what is determined ultimately from this, it could be a significant impediment to construction of new plants, but perhaps not. We need to - we need to see in the future.
HUNT: Let me ask you a couple particulars there. The administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are reviewing all U.S. facilities. I think it’s one-fifth of our reactors have the same design as that Japanese - now, they’re not located, you know, near an earthquake, or most of them aren’t, but do you think we should consider temporarily closing a few of those who may be in the most dangerous spots until we know all the facts?
BINGAMAN: I don’t know of anything that would justify closing down the facilities that are now operating. I think the president was wise to order a review - a safety review of all of our 104 plants. And if something is determined as a result of that review that would justify shutting them down, then that’s obviously what we should do.
HUNT: But not now?
BINGAMAN: I don’t - I don’t know of anything that would justify shutting them down before that review is done.
HUNT: The Germans, as you know, suspended relicensings of plants. There are others who’ve said we ought to put a moratorium on 18 to 20 new applications. Merit in either of those approaches?
BINGAMAN: Well, as far as putting a moratorium on applications, you know, the processing of an application takes years before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I’m sure that our Nuclear Regulatory Commission will take into account whatever is learned from what’s going on in Japan.
HUNT: You don’t think we should go the German route of -
BINGAMAN: I can’t see what justification there would be for stopping the use of nuclear power plants that have been certified and that are operating safely.
HUNT: Does this accident underscore the need for the U.S. to move forward expeditiously on a permanent repository planned site, including putting Yucca Mountain back on the agenda?
BINGAMAN: Well, I’ve always favored going ahead with a repository, a permanent repository for nuclear waste. I don’t know that there’s anything about this incident in Japan, this tragedy in Japan, that changes that particularly. I mean, we need a long-term storage plan for nuclear waste, and we’ve needed that for a long time now.
HUNT: Do you think there’s any prospect for that occurring in the rest of your tenure in the Senate?
BINGAMAN: Well, there is a blue-ribbon commission that the president’s appointed that has been meeting for about a year now that is coming out with a report this summer, making recommendations for what should be done if we’re not going to use Yucca Mountain. And, of course, the administration’s position is, we will not use Yucca Mountain as a repository.
So once those recommendations come from that commission, I think at that point it would be appropriate for us to see if they’ve recommended something we ought to adopt.
HUNT: Going back to Japan, people can’t be assured without candor and transparency. Now, Bloomberg reported this week that Tokyo Electric Power Company has a long history of falsified reports. And our top officials, some of what they told us, it doesn’t square with what the Japanese are saying. Is Japan hurting itself with the lack of transparency here?
BINGAMAN: Well, I do think you’re right, that Tokyo Electric Power does have some credibility problems on some of these issues based on prior actions. And I think - I think myself that we should do all we can to persuade the Japanese of the views that our experts have come up with and see if we can stay on the same page with them as far as our estimation of the risk, as far as our plans for assisting them to deal with this crisis. All of that I think is helpful.
HUNT: Senator, as you know, as gasoline prices soar, Republicans have assailed the Obama administration for what they say are overzealous environmental regulations and stifling exploration or drilling. You gave a speech in the Senate floor this week that says none of that’s true. Do you think Republicans are playing politics with gasoline prices?
BINGAMAN: Oh, I don’t think there’s any question. Whenever the price of gas at the pump goes up, Americans get to looking around for who’s to blame, and that’s understandable. And I think that it’s very convenient if you’re - if you want to find a scapegoat to say the president’s bound to be to blame. He’s in the White House.
I think the truth is, the price of oil at the pump - or the price of gasoline at the pump directly tracks the price of oil on world markets, and there’s nothing that I know of that the Obama administration has done that has raised the price of oil on world markets. They’ve been trying to do what they could to keep the price of oil from going up, but they haven’t raised it.
HUNT: You’re chairman of the committee. Do you plan to introduce and push sometime soon this year clean air energy legislation? And, if so, will it include a nuclear component?
BINGAMAN: We have been trying to see if we could get a consensus in our committee to go ahead with something like the president called for in his State of the Union speech, which would be a clean energy standard, which would be trying to - trying to put in a requirement in law that utilities move to where 80 percent of the electricity they’re producing be from clean-energy sources, and he defined that to include nuclear, natural gas, clean coal, a variety of other -
HUNT: And how are the prospects looking?
BINGAMAN: Well, I don’t know. It’s too soon to know.
HUNT: It’s tough?
BINGAMAN: It’s tough. It’s tough. And anything’s tough in Washington these days, but this, of course, will be tough, too. But we’re working on it, and we hope - we hope we can make some progress.
HUNT: OK, Chairman Bingaman, thank you so much for being with us. And when we come back, the U.N. gets tough with Qaddafi. We’ll talk to our reporters next.
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