Does Japan Crisis Put U.S. Nuclear Energy Push at Risk?

Some observers raising red flags about safety at U.S. nuclear power plants.

March 14, 2011, 1:43 PM

March 14, 2011— -- 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.

"It is important that we are clear about the risks each type of energy poses. We don't abandon highway systems because bridges and overpasses collapse during earthquakes. The 1.6 million of us who fly daily would not stop flying after a tragic airplane crash. We would find out what happened and do our best to make it safe," Alexander said on the Senate floor today. "Despite the fact that there has never been a death as a result of an accident at an American reactor, our goal should be to make nuclear power even safer."

Greg Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the agency will consider down the road what changes, if any, to consider in the wake of the events in Japan but expressed confidence in the U.S. nuclear infrastructure.

"As an independent regulatory agency, we will always take whatever steps are necessary to ensure the safety and security of nuclear power plants in this country but, right now, we believe we have a very strong program in place," he said.

Opponents of nuclear power plants have raised red flags, arguing that the events unfolding in Japan expose "nuclear power's Achilles' heel."

Japan Crisis Sheds New Light on U.S. Nuclear Industry

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., is urging the administration to impose a moratorium on siting new nuclear reactors in seismically active areas until a full review of such sites has been completed.

"The unfolding disaster in Japan must produce a seismic shift in how we address nuclear safety here in America," he said.

Markey and the top Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., are pushing for a hearing examining the safety and preparedness of nuclear power plants in the United States.

There are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States that account for 20 percent of the nation's electricity. The United States depends less on nuclear power than other countries such as Japan and France, where consumption goes up to 70 percent of total electricity output.

At least 20 other reactors are being examined by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and two reactors are under construction in Georgia.

Despite all the touting of the benefits of nuclear power plants, some experts say, the industry was growing slowly to begin with.

Although energy experts agree that it is among the most efficient and cost effective ways to generate power, nuclear power plants are costly to build -- with a price tag of up to $10 billion in some areas -- and raises questions about how the risk should be divided.

"The reality has been that despite all the talk of a nuclear renaissance in the States, we really probably would be lucky to have five or six plants built over the next decade," said Charles K. Ebinger, director of the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

"Realistically now, with the availability of shelf gas in such quantities, we just are not going to see a major nuclear revival in the United States. But I don't think this incident will slow down the process any more than it's being slowed down because of cost and other concerns."

But that, in turn, could put the United States behind others. China is in the process of building 100 reactors, as is India and other countries in the Middle East.

Some observers say the crisis in Japan and the uprising in Libya, which have pushed up oil prices in recent weeks to historic levels, could bring renewed focus to green energy sources.

But with the gridlock in Washington over the future of energy policy, whether that happens in the United States remains to be seen.

ABC News' Jake Tapper and John Parkinson contributed to this report.