WASHINGTON -- Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Tuesday restated the Obama administration’s commitment to keeping nuclear power in the mix of energy sources under development in the U.S., but declined to discuss how the evolving nuclear disaster in Japan might affect that effort.
"The administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources, including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power," Chu said in testimony before a House subcommittee. "The administration is committed to learning from Japan's experience as we work to continue to strengthen America's nuclear industry."
Chu echoed assurances made by the White House on Monday that nuclear facilities in the U.S. are maintained at the highest safety standards. Those near the fault lines and the coasts are designed to withstand the double blow of an earthquake and tsunami that rocked reactors in Japan and led to the release of radioactive material, he said.
More than 30 experts from the Department of Energy have been deployed to assist Japanese officials still struggling to stabilize reactors and assess potential fallout, Chu said. Emergency response experts stationed at U.S. consulates and military installations will assist with surveying and sampling. The U.S. has sent more than 17,000 pounds of monitoring equipment intended to provide early detection of contamination on the ground.
"We can be assured that whatever does get released, we can give people fair warning," Chu told the energy and water subcommittee of the House appropriations committee.
The disaster in Japan vividly illustrates public fears about the safety of nuclear power at a time when the Obama administration is accelerating its push for nuclear expansion. No new reactors have been developed since 1979, when investors and the public veered away from nuclear power after the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island facility in Pennsylvania.
But spurred by a shift in policy, the industry has seen a recent revival. That expansion was always on uncertain footing and the incident in Japan would likely further complicate those efforts.
Of the first wave of four new nuclear projects, just one remains clearly on track -- two new reactors at the Vogtle plant near Augusta, Ga., Chu told lawmakers, adding that investors will likely look even harder at whether nuclear plants will be safe.
Asked whether he thought the crisis at the Japanese reactor would put the brakes on nuclear expansion, Chu demurred.
"I still feel it's probably premature to say anything other than, 'We will learn from this and all forms of energy do present risks,'" Chu said.