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GOP Leaders Defend Nuclear Energy

Pro-nuclear-energy lawmakers are standing by the industry in the wake of this weekend’s disaster in Japan, arguing the ongoing crisis should not stand in the way of development of new reactors in the U.S.

House Republicans last week kicked off efforts to pass their energy agenda, which includes development of new nuclear power plants. GOP Members seem to be pressing ahead despite last week’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan that caused explosions and fires in several nuclear plants. The disaster has prompted calls from environmentalists and some liberal lawmakers to put the brakes on domestic nuclear energy projects.

“As far as we know, this is the result of a tsunami. The shutdowns and what is going on over there with the reactors has a direct causal link with a tsunami,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said Monday.

“I do believe that we certainly want to get to the bottom of it, and if we can learn any lessons from Japan’s experience, for sure. But nuclear power is an essential part of the energy mix in this country. And the president has said so, and I share that position,” the Virginia Republican added.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander argued in a floor speech that the problems with the Japanese reactors should provide a chance to make new projects safer rather than a reason to shut them down.

“The reactor safety systems so far appear to have done their job in withstanding the earthquake, tsunami, power loss and explosions — and none of the reactor containment structures seem to have been breached in these worst-case conditions. The lesson that America can take away is this: Learn all we can from this Japanese experience to make the operation of American reactors as safe as possible,” the Tennessean said.

Alexander also argued that nuclear energy has a record of safety in the U.S. and is a key part of the nation’s economic growth.

“No one has ever died from a nuclear accident at any of our commercial reactors. Without nuclear power, it is hard to imagine how the U.S. could produce enough cheap, reliable, clean electricity to keep our economy moving and keep jobs from going overseas,” Alexander said.

Democrats have offered a variety of reactions but universally stress the need to learn lessons from the crisis.

“My own view is that we need to have a diverse set of sources for energy production, and nuclear power is currently responsible for 20 percent of our electricity generation,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) said in a statement. “I think nuclear power can be provided in a safe reliable way and it is possible that we will learn some things from what’s happened in Japan that will persuade us to put in place additional precautions.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) also rejected the idea of a moratorium on nuclear energy development. “I don’t agree on a moratorium … if we’re going to reach energy independence, it’s absolutely essential,” Hoyer said.

But House Natural Resources ranking member Ed Markey, long a critic of the nuclear energy industry, warned that the U.S. could experience a similar tragedy.

“I am … struck by the fact that the tragic events now unfolding in Japan could very easily occur in the United States. What is happening in Japan right now shows that a severe accident at a nuclear power plant can happen here,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a statement.

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