Graham urges confidence in new nuclear reactors

By James T. Hammond
Published March 17, 2011

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham gave President Barack Obama’s administration high marks this morning for its statements and reaction to the Japanese nuclear crisis, and he urged the American nuclear power industry to “get out in front” of the debate, to engage the public and to make its case for new reactors.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey GrahamIn a conference call with media representatives, the S.C. Republican said that regional electric utility officials, including Duke Energy and SCANA Corp., are “scared to death” that the failed nuclear power station in earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged Japan will cause a public and political reaction that will slow or stop their construction plans for the first new reactors in the United States since the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown.

But Graham said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has been reassuring in his statements that the Obama administration stands behind its loan guarantee program to help utilities replace aging nuclear and coal-fired power plants nationwide.

Describing Chu’s statements as “responsible leadership,” Graham said he’s pleased that Obama has put $36 billion of new loan guarantees in his budget proposal.

“Nuclear power is going to be essential if America is to grow,” Graham said, adding, “We could not replace that power easily.”

The United States has 104 nuclear power reactors nationwide, about half of which are 30 to 40 years old. Graham said it would be a mistake for America to abandon its resolve to build new, safer nuclear plants at a time when traditional energy supplies of oil and gas are becoming more expensive and threatened by political tensions around the globe.

As far as existing plants are concerned, Graham expressed confidence that American safety standards are the best in the world, that the aging plants have been continually improved and that, in any case, none of the S.C. plants is vulnerable to the flooding that crippled the Japanese plants.

Progress Energy does operate one nuclear plant at Southport, N.C., on the coast, near sea level, a few miles from the Grand Strand.

“I live five miles from Duke Energy’s Oconee Nuclear Station,” said Graham, a Seneca native. “I’ve been in the plant, and I feel safe.”

Graham urged that the United States move cautiously in taking lessons from the Japanese experience, to learn the right lessons and to avoid abandoning what he called a necessary and viable energy source.

Using last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an example, Graham said that despite initial misgivings about deepwater drilling, both political parties are now calling for more drilling for gas and oil.

“Efforts are under way to make it safer, and the Obama administration is issuing new permits,” Graham said about the oil industry.

He predicted that similar misgivings about nuclear power in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese disaster will give way in six months to objective thinking about the necessity and relative safety of construction of new nuclear reactors.

“Politically, I believe it will be possible to build new reactors,” Graham said.

But he admitted that if a vote were taken in the Senate today, he could not predict how it would turn out.

“Let’s move forward, and only stop when it makes sense,” Graham said. “The nuclear power industry needs to do a better job than the oil and gas industry did” in communicating with the public, he said.

“They need to get ahead of this. I want to make sure the lessons we learn from Japan are logical,” he said.

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