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Japan Nuclear Disaster Not Worse Than Chernobyl, Senator Says

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Senator Jeff Bingaman
Senator Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

March 19 (Bloomberg) -- Japan’s nuclear emergency is “very significant and serious,” though it is no repeat of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine 25 years ago, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy Committee said.

“I don’t think it’s the worst in history,” Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend. “I think Chernobyl’s the worst in history,” he said, while adding, “There’s a lot of uncertainty about what is going to happen” in Japan.

Bingaman said he supports President Barack Obama’s call for a safety review of the 104 nuclear reactors operating in the U.S. following the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, where engineers worked to restart cooling systems to prevent wider radiation leaks.

The U.S. shouldn’t join Germany in shutting down some of its nuclear reactors for such reviews, Bingaman said.

“I don’t know of anything that would justify closing down the facilities that are now operating,” he said.

Environmental groups and some lawmakers have called for limits on construction and operation of nuclear plants since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan were followed by explosions and radiation leaks at Fukushima. Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, is seeking a moratorium on nuclear plant permits in seismically active areas of the U.S.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the U.S. nuclear power industry, will have time to consider lessons from the crisis in Japan in evaluating proposed new reactors, Bingaman said.

‘Takes Years’

“The processing of an application takes years,” Bingaman said. The commission will “take into account whatever is learned from what’s going on in Japan,” he said.

The U.S. has told Americans living in Japan to move to an area beyond 50 miles from the stricken facility and has begun airlifting citizens and the families of military and diplomatic personnel out of the country. Japan evacuated its citizens to a smaller radius surrounding the plant.

“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,” Bingaman said.

The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co., has “some credibility problems” given revelations in 2002 and 2007 that the utility faked repair records, the senator said.

Gasoline Prices

On another energy-related matter, Bingaman defended Obama against Republican criticism that he is to blame for high gasoline prices. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, accused Obama last week of blocking more domestic production of energy, which the administration denied.

Bingaman said Republicans are trying to make the president a scapegoat when a worldwide rise in per-barrel costs is to blame.

“There’s nothing that I know of that the Obama administration has done that has raised the price of oil on world markets,” Bingaman said.

He said he will push to enact an energy plan similar to Obama’s proposal to require that 80 percent of U.S. electricity come from low-polluting sources by 2035. Such a measure would mandate more use of wind, solar, natural gas, cleaner coal and nuclear power. Last year, House-passed legislation to cap greenhouse-gas emissions died in the Senate.

“Anything’s tough in Washington these days, but this, of course, will be tough, too,” Bingaman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jim Snyder in Washington at jsnyder24@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Liebert at lliebert@bloomberg.net.

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