White House says Obama won't back off nuclear energy

President Obama continues to believe that nuclear energy is key to U.S. energy policy even as uncertainty and fear grip Japan, where plants were damaged during last week’s earthquake and tsunami.

Senior Obama administration officials said Monday that Obama remains committed to nuclear power, and that U.S. nuclear plants had been built to withstand the strain of strong storms and earthquakes.

In a briefing at the White House, press secretary Jay Carney said that information is still coming in on the status of the damaged nuclear plants in Japan, but for now Obama is committed to keeping nuclear energy in the U.S. portfolio.

Greg Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), attended the briefing with Carney. He said that analysis of the damage, the type of reactor and the distances involved indicate a “very low likelihood” that any potential fallout from Japan might reach Hawaii, U.S. territories or the Western states.

U.S. nuclear power plants are built and tested to endure the strain of natural phenomena like hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes, Jaczko said.

“Right now, we continue to believe that nuclear power plants in this country operate safely and securely,” Jaczko said.

To that end, both Jaczko and Energy Department deputy secretary Dan Poneman said that nuclear energy “continues to play an important role in providing a low-carbon future.”

The NRC has dispatched two nuclear experts to Tokyo to help the Japanese.

Top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, meanwhile, called on Republicans to hold hearings on nuclear power-plant safety, saying the crisis in Japan had raised "serious questions."

Carney, who said that nuclear energy accounts for more than 20 percent of the U.S.'s electricity, said Obama continues to receive updates on the situation in Japan. John Brennan, Obama’s top assistant for homeland security, is coordinating an inter-agency response from the White House, Carney said.

A number of power companies in recent years have begun applying for NRC licenses to build what would be the first new U.S. reactors in decades.

The White House has supported the efforts.

Last year the administration approved $8.3 billion worth of Energy Department loan guarantees for utility giant Southern Company to add two new reactors to its Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia – a decision Obama announced personally. But the project would still need an NRC construction and operating license to move ahead.

The White House fiscal year 2012 budget plan would give the Energy Department another $36 billion in loan guarantee authority for supporting new reactors.

And Obama used January’s State of the Union speech to float a “clean energy standard” that would require power companies to collectively supply 80 percent of U.S. electricity from various low-carbon sources – including nuclear power – by 2035.

Carney said Monday that although the crisis in Japan is still unfolding, the White House isn’t backing away from the proposed “clean” standard. He said that U.S. officials will incorporate information from Japan “into how we view safety and security of nuclear energy as a resource.” 

“When he [Obama] talks about reaching a clean energy standard, it's a vital part of that,” Carney said. “We remain to the clean-energy standard and the other aspects of the president's energy plan.”

This story was first posted at 2:39 p.m. and most recently updated at 4:28 p.m.