Energy chairman vows inquiry into Japan nuclear plant damage

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) plans to question the top U.S. nuclear power regulator next week about damage to Japanese nuclear reactors stemming from the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami.

Upton – who is planning legislation to help spur construction of new U.S. reactors – said Saturday night that the committee’s planned March 16 hearing with Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko will focus on the Japanese crisis.

“[W]e will use that opportunity to explore what is known in the early aftermath of the damage to Japanese nuclear facilities, as well as to reiterate our unwavering commitment to the safety of U.S. nuclear sites,” Upton said in a statement about the hearing, which was scheduled to review the NRC and Energy Department budget plans.

Upton’s plans come amid reports that a meltdown may be under way at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in northeast Japan.

“A meltdown may have occurred at at least one nuclear power reactor in Japan, the country's chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, said Sunday, adding that authorities are concerned about the possibility of another meltdown at a second reactor,” CNN reported.

“Some 170,000 people have been ordered to evacuate the area covering a radius of 20 kilometers around the plant in Fukushima near Iwaki,” the Associated Press reports.

The problems in Japan could create new hurdles for Upton and other advocates of helping the nuclear industry win permission and funding to build the first fleet of new U.S. reactors in decades.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who is a senior member of the Energy and Commerce and nuclear industry critic, said Saturday that the U.S. is also vulnerable to major nuclear accidents.

Markey called on the Obama administration and the NRC to consider the implementation of several policy changes in light of the disaster.

Among the proposed reforms, he called for a moratorium of siting new nuclear reactors on seismically active areas and called for reactors in seismically active zones to be retrofitted with stronger containment systems.

The NRC, meanwhile, has dispatched staff with expertise in boiling water nuclear reactors to Japan to assist with the unfolding crisis.

“We have some of the most expert people in this field in the world working for the NRC and we stand ready to assist in any way possible,” NRC Chairman Jaczko said in a statement Saturday.

Upton also said, “As we extend our thoughts and prayers to those affected by this historic earthquake and the damage it wrought, we will carefully continue to assess and examine the situation.”

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