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Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Raises Energy Questions in U.S.

March 16, 2011 at 6:49 PM EDT
Kwame Holman reports on how Japan's ongoing nuclear crisis is renewing the debate about the use of nuclear power in the United States.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The nuclear crisis in Japan is raising questions in the United States and elsewhere about whether to bank on more nuclear power for the future. In the U.S. alone, there are applications pending for 20 new reactors.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

KWAME HOLMAN: Before last Friday, nuclear power had been undergoing a rebirth of sorts, a process that took decades following two catastrophes: the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the worst accident ever, and the 1979 Three Mile Island partial meltdown in Pennsylvania.

But, in recent years, nuclear has been heralded by the industry, many elected officials and some environmentalists as a clean and safe alternative to fossil fuels in a warming world.

Now, as technicians do battle at the crippled 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi reactors, prospects for developing nuclear energy worldwide are facing new questions. China said today it will suspend new plant approvals. And several European nations have powered down plants for safety checks, among them, Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday:

ANGELA MERKEL, German chancellor (through translator): Those nuclear plants which started running before the end of the year 1980 will be taken offline.

KWAME HOLMAN: There has been no talk of such a move from the Obama administration. In the U.S., 104 nuclear power plants produce just less than 20 percent of the nation’s total electricity load.

But near those facilities, some residents worry about safety amid natural disasters, from San Clemente on California’s coast…

JORDAN WISE: They’re saying this 10-foot wall is going to hold a tsunami, but I think differently. I think that tsunami is going to go right on over that wall.

KWAME HOLMAN: … to Florida.

SETH MCKINNEY: I really feel like it could be catastrophic, should we have natural disasters that are beyond our control, how we would contain this energy.

KWAME HOLMAN: The topic of U.S. nuclear safety was one of many discussed by secretary of Energy Steven Chu this morning during a House hearing on his department’s budget. Lawmakers searched for comparisons to the events unfolding across the Pacific.

U.S. ENERGY SECRETARY STEVEN CHU: The Japan incidents actually appear to be more serious than Three Mile Island. To what extent, we don’t really know now.

KWAME HOLMAN: Chu said his department had dispatched teams to Japan to monitor the crisis and assist the Japanese. They also hope to apply lessons learned here.

STEVEN CHU: What we want to do is look at what happened in Japan and look to whether we would be more vulnerable to a cascade of multiple events and how they might compromise safety.

KWAME HOLMAN: Of particular interest to lawmakers, Japan uses many reactors similar to those operating in the United States.

A new power-generating U.S. reactor has not come online in 15 years, and no new ground has been broken for a facility in more than twice that time.

In September, President Obama said nuclear must be part of an energy and climate strategy.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But if we’re concerned about global warming and greenhouse gases, nuclear energy is a legitimate fuel energy source that the Japanese and the French have been using much more intelligently than we have.

KWAME HOLMAN: Secretary Chu reaffirmed the administration’s commitment nuclear power today.

As part of his budget, Mr. Obama proposed $36 billion in loan guarantees to help build as many as 20 new nuclear plants. That follows on the 2005 energy bill signed by President Bush, who sought to streamline the regulatory process and extend loan guarantees to the industry.

The Southern Company has secured the sole loan guarantee under the 2005 program to build two new reactors at a plant in Georgia. Construction is under way.