It's premature to compare the Japanese nuclear situation to the meltdown at Chernobyl in the old Soviet Union, the top Senate Republican on energy issues stressed Friday.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, waged a defense of nuclear energy amid a crisis at the Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, which has been at risk of a meltdown since being rocked by an earthquake last week.

"Some have compared the event to Chernobyl and declared the nuclear power renaissance dead. But that comparison is incorrect and the prediction premature," Murkowski wrote in an opinion piece for CNN. "I believe nuclear power will continue to be a viable energy source in this country for decades to come."

The situation in Japan had prompted evacuations by Americans and Japanese from the areas nearby the Daiichi plant, for fears of elevated levels of radiation having entered the atmosphere. Japanese workers have struggled to cool fuel rods after power at the plant was knocked out in the earthquake, prompting concerns about a meltdown, and renewed questions about the safety of nuclear power.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Murkowski's Democratic counterpart in the House, made a direct comparison to the 1986 nuclear disaster earlier this week.

"I think we have to have a lot of pause after what's happened in Japan," he said. "They're looking like Chernobyl or close to it at the moment."

Other lawmakers, including many Republicans who favor increased nuclear energy production, have been more cautious in their assessment of the situation. Murkowski warned against using the Daiichi situation for political purposes.

"There will almost certainly be lessons learned from the Daiichi event that can be incorporated into U.S. operations," she said. "Right now, however, the focus and priority need to be on stabilizing the Daiichi units and helping those who were so terribly affected by these natural disasters, not using the crisis to score political points."