By Tom Doggett and Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. regulators should press ahead with approving construction licenses for new nuclear power plants despite Japan's nuclear crisis, President Barack Obama's top energy official said on Tuesday.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu said lessons could be learned from Japan, where an earthquake-crippled nuclear power plant exploded and blasted radiation into the air, but that was not a reason to delay expansion in the United States.
"I think those things can proceed," Chu told reporters on Capitol Hill, referring to construction license applications pending at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The NRC may decide in the fourth quarter of this year whether to issue such licenses to Southern Co and SCANA Corp to build two reactors each.
Chu said the agency had a lengthy and thorough process to review applications for new reactors.
"I think we're in good hands," he said.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, called for a "time out" to assess the use of nuclear energy in the United States. Even fellow Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who supports nuclear power, said a review might be necessary.
The Obama administration has maintained its support for expanding U.S. use of nuclear energy despite renewed fears about its safety after the events in Japan.
Obama asked the NRC to incorporate lessons from the situation in Japan into its overall review of the safety of nuclear reactors in the United States, the White House said.
Obama has given his backing to building more nuclear power plants to help meet U.S. energy needs, fight climate change, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
His budget requests up to $36 billion for loan guarantees to help build new nuclear reactors. Nuclear energy currently provides about 20 percent of the country's electricity and proponents highlight that nuclear energy production results in virtually zero emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases.
Chu's comments to reporters illustrated the depth of the administration's commitment to moving forward with nuclear energy expansion.
That commitment contrasts with other countries, which have backed away from nuclear in the wake of the Japanese crisis.
Germany said it would shut down for at least three months all seven of its nuclear power stations that began operating before 1980 and Switzerland put on hold some approvals for nuclear power plants.
Some U.S. lawmakers have questioned whether the United States should put a pause on nuclear, too. 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.
Asked about the prospects for such a brake, Chu said only that lessons could be learned from the Japan tragedy.
"We have to take a hard look: were there any lessons learned from this tragedy that can further improve the safety ... of our existing reactors?" he told a congressional committee. "It's probably premature to say anything except we will learn from this."
Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said his panel may hold hearings about how Japan's nuclear disaster might impact the U.S. nuclear industry.
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 industry because of its radioactive waste, which is now stored on site at reactor locations around the country.
After Three Mile Island, the industry did not start building a new reactor in the United States for about 30 years.
Chu said U.S. reactors were safe and designed to withstand natural disasters, though he said the United States would use Japan's experience to study whether there were any safety considerations that had been overlooked here.
"Whenever there is a reactor near an earthquake site, we look to what's the maximum size of that earthquake, and we design considerably above that," he said.
(Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner, Ayesha Rascoe, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Russell Blinch and Anthony Boadle)