WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States should "put the brakes on" new nuclear power plants until fully understanding what happened to the earthquake-crippled nuclear reactors in Japan, the chairman of the U.S. Senate's homeland security panel said on Sunday.
Engineers in Japan tried on Sunday to avert a meltdown at three nuclear reactors following Friday's huge earthquake by pumping in cooling seawater after authorities said they assumed that some damage had already occurred.
"I don't want to stop the building of nuclear power plants," independent Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."
"But I think we've got to kind of quietly put, quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami and then see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming on line," Lieberman added.
Lieberman, an influential voice in the U.S. Congress on domestic security matters, described himself as a "big supporter of nuclear power because it's domestic, it's ours and it's clean." He also touted "a good safety record" with nuclear power plants in the United States.
Nuclear power is controversial because of its radioactive waste, which is now stored on site at reactor locations around the country. Remembering the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, many Americans still harbor concerns about nuclear power's safety.
U.S. President Barack Obama has argued that the United States must increase its supply of nuclear power to meet its energy needs and fight climate change. In February 2010, Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build the first U.S. nuclear power plant in nearly three decades.
The government backing will go to help Southern Co build two reactors at a plant in the U.S. state of Georgia.
Expanding nuclear energy is an area Obama, a Democrat, and Republicans have embraced as a way to generate power and jobs.
Supporters of nuclear power argue that more reactors will be needed for the United States to tackle global warming effectively because nuclear is a much cleaner energy source than coal-fired power plants, which spew greenhouse gases.
Lieberman noted there are 104 nuclear power plants in the United States, and that about 23 of them are built according to designs similar to the nuclear power plants in Japan that are now the focus of the world's concern.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is actively reviewing 12 combined license applications from 11 companies and consortia for 20 nuclear power plants, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group.
"Since Three Mile Island, we upgraded safety standards for our nuclear power plants, and right now no plant can be built unless it can withstand the known highest earthquake in that geographic area plus some margin of safety," Lieberman said.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, speaking on "Fox News Sunday," urged a cautious approach.
"I don't think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy. I think we ought to just concentrate on helping the Japanese in any way that we can," McConnell said.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer told NBC's "Meet the Press" the United States still must free itself from dependence on foreign oil for its energy needs. "I'm still willing to look at nuclear. As I've always said, it has to be done safely and carefully," Schumer said.
Friday's earthquake knocked out the back-up cooling systems at stricken reactors in Fukushima prefecture north of Tokyo, causing a build-up of heat and pressure that probably damaged but had not yet destroyed some fuel rods.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; editing by John Whitesides)