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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pro Nuke or No Nuke? Washington Reacts

Air Date: Week of

In a speech on the crisis in Japan, President Obama affirmed his commitment to nuclear energy, "an important part of our own energy future."

President Obama is counting on a nuclear renaissance to help wean the nation from dirty coal. But the crisis in Japan has exposed the potential dangers of nuclear power generation and some members of Congress worry industry regulations aren't as safe as they should be. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports from Washington.


GELLERMAN: As the Japanese nuclear disaster unfolds, nations around the world are rethinking their atomic power programs and plans for the future. China, with 28 nuclear power plants in the works, has suspended construction and ordered safety reviews of existing installations. Meanwhile, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and Turkey are taking action, and president Obama says the U.S. also has lessons to learn from doomed reactors at the Fukushima power plant.

OBAMA: That’s why I’ve asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a comprehensive review of the safety of our domestic nuclear plants in light of the natural disaster that unfolded in Japan.

GELLERMAN: Nevertheless, the Obama White House still backs a nuclear renaissance. Living on Earth’s Mitra Taj reports from Capitol Hill.

In a speech on the crisis in Japan, President Obama affirmed his commitment to nuclear energy, "an important part of our own energy future."

TAJ: Before Japan’s nuclear crisis, Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu was asking Congress for 36 billion dollars to loan to the nuclear industry. And now - his 2012 budget still asks for 36 billion.

CHU: It'd be premature to say anything other than we will use this opportunity to learn as best we can and consider carefully how to go forward.

TAJ: That put him in the odd position of pleasing Republicans, like Congressman Joe Barton of Texas, who pushed him to be clear.

BARTON: I'm not sure what you just said. (Laughs)

CHU: Okay…

BARTON: Does the president support new nuclear power plant construction in the United States?

CHU: The present budget is what it is. And we're asking for loan guarantees. That position has not been changed.

BARTON: So that's a yes.

CHU: That's a yes.

BARTON: Good, that's what I wanted you to say.

Secretary of Energy Steve Chu.

TAJ: But that's not what some Democrats wanted him to say. Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts says the disaster in Japan will make an already-reluctant private sector even less interested in financing a nuclear renaissance. And that will give Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu a new title.

MARKEY: Banker-in-chief to the nuclear industry - a socialist system that allows for the U.S. government to provide taxpayer-backed loan guarantees for nuclear power plant construction in our country.

TAJ: Markey says the loans would become "toxic" assets, leaving taxpayers on the hook in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. Markey’s calling for a moratorium on new nuclear reactors, and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid says that’s not a bad idea.

REID: I don't think there should be a mad rush to say nuclear power generation is bad. But I think we need a timeout to take a look at it.

TAJ: But Reid's Republican colleagues point out there haven't been any new construction licenses issued since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

INHOFE: We've been delaying for 30 years now, so I think that we certainly don't want to slow down - let's keep going.

TAJ: Republican Senator Jim Inhofe appealed to Gregory Jaczko, the head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the independent agency that oversees the industry. As Jaczko made his rounds on Capitol Hill, lawmaker after lawmaker grilled him on the nuclear power plants in their states and districts, and time and time again he told them, ‘Don’t worry.’

JACZKO: We work everyday to make sure that nuclear power plants are safe and that they continue to be secure. We do intend, as we go forward, to look at the events from Japan and see if there are things that we can learn that would inform and possibly improve the way we go about doing our safety work.

TAJ: But that didn’t convince independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who asked Jaczko to reevaluate the commission's recent 20-year extension of Vermont Yankee power plant, which in the past has leaked tritium and experienced a collapse. It’s also one of 23 reactors in the U.S. of the same GE Mark 1 design as the stricken plant in Fukushima.

SANDERS: The idea that we would have a plant of the same design - which in 20 years will be 60 years old - I think is a frightening thought to many people in Vermont.

TAJ: It’s frightening, Sanders says, because history has shown the unthinkable can happen.

SANDERS: We have seen it with 9-11: unthinkable that one of the large buildings in America would be attacked by terrorists! Unthinkable that thousands of people would die in hurricane Katrina! Unthinkable that BP would have an environmentally damaging leak in the Gulf Coast! Unthinkable, unthinkable, unthinkable, until the day after it happens! And the problem with nuclear power is it cannot be just 99.99 percent safe.

TAJ: But Jaczko says he has no plans to shut down facilities or change the NRC's procedures until more is known about what went wrong in Japan.

NRC chairman Gregory Jaczko tried to reassure lawmakers that U.S. nuclear reactors are safe. (Photo: U.S. Congress)

JACZKCO: I think it’ll take us, you know, a little bit of time, I want to make sure - the most important thing is that we do this right. I don't want to rush into a process that winds up focusing on something that just isn't really the right thing. And then we wind up missing that piece that's really most important.

TAJ: That worries Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, the chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. She told Jaczko that in California, two nuclear power plants lie on fault lines - one with more than seven million people living less than 50 miles away.

BOXER: Right now, you're doing nothing new. Nothing. Not one thing. I haven’t heard anything. I look at what Germany is doing; I look at what EU is doing. None of them are panicking at all - they're just being, I think, wise. They're just, ‘Okay, let's take another look at these places that have seismic activity, let’s shut down temporarily.’ I don't hear anything proactive.

TAJ: Jaczko may get another chance to reassure Congress that nuclear power generation in the U.S. is safe. Despite divisions on Capitol Hill, policymakers seem to agree that they should study Japan’s tragedy and learn the lessons to make sure it doesn’t happen here. For Living on Earth, I'm Mitra Taj in Washington.



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