White House re-states nuclear power support, committed to ‘learning’ from Japanese crisis

The moratorium should remain until completion of a “top-to-bottom review of seismic and tsunami reactor design resiliency, emergency response and evacuation plans,” his office said, and also called for consideration of other steps, such as requiring stronger containment systems at existing reactors in seismic zones.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), speaking on CBS Sunday, also said the Japanese crisis – which has forced emergency efforts to cool overheating reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant and problems at other facilities as well – warrants new review.

"I think it calls on us here in the U.S. naturally – not to stop building nuclear power plants – but to put the brakes on right now until we understand the ramifications of what's happened in Japan,” he said.

The damage to the Japanese reactors is creating new uncertainty about plans by a suite of power companies to win approval for building the first new U.S. reactors in decades.

The Obama administration backs efforts to expand nuclear power. The administration last year approved over $8 billion worth of loan guarantees for Southern Company’s proposal to build two new reactors in Georgia.

The White House’s fiscal year 2012 budget plan also seeks another $36 billion worth of loan guarantee authority to support new reactors. President Obama is also pushing Congress to create a “clean energy standard” that calls for an expansion of low-carbon electricity generation from sources including nuclear power.

Various power companies in recent years have submitted applications to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for construction of over 20 new reactors, although the projects face often-daunting financial hurdles even without renewed safety concerns.

The NRC has not yet issued licenses for construction and operation of new commercial power reactors, although the Tennessee Valley Authority is completing a second reactor at its Watts Bar plant. Construction on the unit – first approved in 1973 – was suspended in the mid-1980s but the project was revived several years ago.

Preliminary site preparation and construction activities have begun at the Southern Company project and another proposed new plant in South Carolina that South Carolina Electric & Gas is developing, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group.

The companies are expected to receive NRC licenses to build and operate the plants late this year or in early 2012, according to the trade group, although it would be years before the projects actually begin commercial operation if they’re allowed to proceed.

Stevens, the White House aide, also said that “The administration’s first priority right now is to support Japan, as well as American citizens in Japan, as they respond to and recover from this event, and we continue to monitor the situation and provide assistance.”