By Jeff Mason and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Monday it will push ahead with nuclear power as a vital part of its energy mix even as other nations balk at the sight of Japan battling to prevent quake-crippled reactors from melting down.
"We view nuclear energy as a very important component to the overall portfolio we're trying to build for a clean-energy future," Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman told reporters at the White House.
Poneman said the administration believed U.S. nuclear plants are safe. "We will continue to seek to build nuclear into a part of a responsible energy future," he said.
President Barack Obama has urged expansion of nuclear power to help meet the country's energy demands, lower its dependence on fossil fuels and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Last year Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build the first U.S. nuclear power plant in nearly three decades.
It remains to be seen whether U.S. domestic public opinion will swing against nuclear energy as engineers fight to prevent a meltdown at a Japanese nuclear plant following Friday's huge earthquake.
The events in Japan have shaken confidence in nuclear power in some countries while others have reaffirmed their commitment to atomic energy.
Germany suspended an agreement to extend the life of its nuclear power stations and Switzerland put on hold some approvals for nuclear power plants. [ID:nBAT006083] [ID:nWEA8330] Taiwan's state-run Taipower said it was studying plans to cut nuclear power output. [ID:nTOE72D046]
Since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, many Americans have harbored concerns about nuclear power's safety. Controversy has also dogged the nuclear power industry because of its radioactive waste, which is now stored on site at reactor locations around the country.
Poneman said nuclear power is a critical component in the U.S. energy portfolio, with 104 operating reactors providing 20 percent of the nation's electricity. "So we do see nuclear power as continuing to play an important role in building a low-carbon future, but be assured that we will take the safety aspect of that as of our paramount concern," he said.
Poneman said that the United States intends to apply lessons learned from the events in Japan. "We'll continue to seek to improve," he said.
CLEAN ENERGY STANDARD
Nuclear energy is an integral part of Obama's Clean Energy Standard, which requires power companies to produce 80 percent of their electricity from clean sources including natural gas, "clean coal," renewable fuels such as solar and wind power, and nuclear by 2035.
"It ... remains a part of the president's overall energy plan. When he talks about reaching a clean energy standard, it's a vital part of that," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, referring to nuclear energy.
Obama included nuclear power in the plan in part to win support from Republicans. A single nuclear plant provides hundreds of jobs in construction, maintenance and security.
But the Obama administration could lose crucial support from U.S. lawmakers if the situation worsens in Japan. Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent, said on Sunday Washington should "put the brakes" on new nuclear power plants until there is a full understanding of what happened in Japan.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu is due to testify before Congress on Tuesday and later in the week, when lawmakers will likely press him for his thoughts on nuclear energy.
"Barring a life-threatening meltdown in Japan or significantly increased public anxiety over radioactive fallout, we do not expect a new nuclear licensing moratorium," said Whitney Stanco, an energy policy analyst at MF Global.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission hopes to decide by the end of the year whether to approve construction licenses for four new reactors.
Stanco said regulators will be under pressure to outline how the proposals are safer than the older technologies used at the plants damaged in Japan.
Standard and Poor's warned clients that the risk of cancellations or delays for existing and future nuclear projects has increased as a result of the situation in Japan.
Analysts said NRG Energy Inc's $10 billion nuclear plant expansion planned for South Texas may never get off the ground as repercussions from the disaster in Japan spread.
"We continue to believe that nuclear power plants in this country operate safely and securely," said Greg Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"All our plants are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena, like earthquakes, tornadoes, and tsunamis."
Some of the largest U.S. nuclear power generators are Exelon, Southern Co, and Entergy.
Obama is also pressuring coal plants to clean up, which could ensure continued dependence on nuclear and natural gas.
(Editing by Russell Blinch and Will Dunham)