Fears of a possible nuclear reactor meltdown and radiation leak in Japan could endanger enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for the U.S. nuclear-power industry, even as President Obama and Republicans have both expressed support to boost the controversial energy source.
Obama announced about a year ago more than $8 billion in federal loan guarantees to build the first U.S. nuclear power plant in 30 years, and called investments in nuclear energy "a necessary step."
His 2012 budget provides $36 billion in loan guarantee authority for nuclear power plants and $853 million to support nuclear energy, including research and development of a variety of nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors.
Republicans have also been on the forefront pushing nuclear energy. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, late last year vowed to double the United States' nuclear power infrastructure by building 100 new plants in the next 20 years.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has introduced a bill that would triple current megawatt capacity, by 2040, and pave the way for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue operating permits for 200 new nuclear reactors.
But some observers say the situation in Japan, where a series of nuclear reactors are deteriorating in the wake of last week's earthquake and tsunami, could prompt U.S. decision-makers to rethink nuclear energy policy.
"What this accident certainly will bring about is a reconsideration of the build-safe mechanisms at nuclear power plants across the United States, across the world," said Jeff Kueter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute, a nonprofit organization. "In some respects, it's an accident quite similar to the BP disaster in the Gulf.
"I think it will be very difficult to build a new nuclear power plant in the United States in the wake of what happened in Japan," he said. "It was already highly unlikely that we would see a new nuclear plant being built in the United States, for simple economic purposes as well as 'not in my backyard' psychological issues that still accompany nuclear power."
The situation in Japan is also likely to worsen public perception about nuclear power plants. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in January 2010, while slightly more than half supported building nuclear plants in general, far fewer, 35 percent, said they'd support construction of a nuclear plant within 50 miles of their own home.
Republicans say it's too soon to jump to any conclusions.
"I wouldn't -- if I were the president -- sign an executive order to freeze all construction of nuclear plants as the president froze all drilling in the Gulf coast after the disaster down there," Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said on "Top Line" today. "We need to move forward but while we're moving forward we can also do the analysis so that we're doing the prudent thing in the long term."
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who co-sponsored a bill last year to boost nuclear power, also warned his colleagues not to jump into hasty decision making.