Nuclear crisis casts pall on Obama's energy plan 

The crippling of several of Japan's nuclear reactors is threatening to sink a major component of President Obama's blueprint for a greener economy, with fears over the potentially widespread contamination of Japan jeopardizing the bipartisan coalition the president needs to expand nuclear power in the United States.

The crisis has effectively smothered much of the momentum behind nuclear power, halting the industry's slow strides in recent years to allay public safety concerns -- while earning at least tacit support from environmental groups that consider it a necessary evil in a broader plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Members of his own party are clamoring for the president to impose a moratorium on nuclear plant construction, but the White House insists Obama won't change course.

"To meet our energy needs, the administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power," Energy Secretary Steven Chu told a House subcommittee Tuesday.

Besides the nuclear crisis in Japan, the recent Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia and historic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico were already fueling environmental groups' complaints about traditional energy sources.

"What happens in Japan over the coming days may not matter," said Christine Tezak, an energy policy analyst with Robert W. Baird & Co. in McLean. "The debate over a nuclear renaissance has already been altered. The question now posed: Can nuclear plants ever be safe enough?"

Tezak also said that financing a nuclear power plant -- an already arduous undertaking -- is likely to become more expensive in the wake of new safety concerns as the approval process slows down.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass, is pushing for a moratorium on nuclear plants in "seismically questionable" areas of the country while others, including Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., want to halt new plant construction immediately.

With roughly 100 nuclear reactors accounting for one-fifth of U.S. electricity production, administration officials say nuclear power remains a critical component of the nation's energy policy.

In his budget, Obama proposed an additional $36 billion in Department of Energy loan guarantees to build as many as 20 new nuclear plants.

"He believes that our energy future will be best served by the approach that he's taking, which is to take an all-of-the-above approach in terms of our goals to reaching a clean energy standard, and that includes wind, solar, biofuels," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "It includes responsible drilling in the deepwater areas even in the wake of the [Gulf oil spill]."

Republicans hammered Obama for issuing a moratorium on oil-drilling permits in the aftermath of last year's Gulf oil spill -- the administration recently began awarding permits again -- but conservatives and industry officials have embraced the president's approach this time.

"This really should not change this nation's outlook in regard to the future use of nuclear," said Carl Babb, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, adding that it was "too early" to assess lessons learned from the Japan disaster.

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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