The nuclear disaster in Japan has ignited a debate over nuclear energy in the US. While a rapid phase out of nuclear power is not on the public agenda yet, Barack Obama’s pro-nuclear stance is coming under fire.
The catastrophe in Japan could change US nuclear policy
With reports of the nuclear catastrophe in Japan getting more dire by the day, the Obama administration is facing increasingly tougher questions about its own nuclear policy as concerns grow about the safety of this source of energy.
Until now the White House has stuck to its plan that nuclear energy is a part of the US energy mix. On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that nuclear energy "remains a part of the president's overall energy plan."
And US Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman told reporters at the White House that "we view nuclear energy as a very important component to the overall portfolio we're trying to build for a clean-energy future."
Nuclear power currently accounts for about 20 percent of electricity generation in the US, with 104 plants across the country in operation.
But as part of its energy agenda, the Obama administration has called for the construction of new nuclear power plants as a way to combat climate change and become less dependent on foreign oil at the same time.
To push utilities to build new reactors, Washington wants to hand out loan guarantees to the nuclear industry totaling $55 billion (39 billion euros) to construct up to a dozen new reactors. Should a plant operator default, the government would cough up up to 80 percent of the loan. Until now, the Energy Department has conditionally awarded only one loan guarantee of eight billion dollars for two reactors.
The administration's nuclear loan plans require Congressional approval. But the chorus of voices calling for a review of US nuclear policy is growing daily.
Already on the weekend, Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent and former vice presidential candidate said Washington should "put the brakes" on new nuclear power plants until there is a full understanding of what happened in Japan.
On Wednesday, the Energy Committee in the US House will look at the proposal and already the pressure against the plans is growing.
President Barack Obama wants to build new nuclear power plants
And according to a Business Week report, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Representative Fred Upton, a Republican who heads the panel, asking for an investigation of US nuclear safety.
What's more, Congressman Edward Markey, a Democrat and ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, called for a moratorium on permits for US reactors in seismically active areas, reported Business Week.
While Republican Party officials and the White House have so far stuck to their support for nuclear energy that support could dwindle fast in the face of shifting public opinion on the safety of nuclear energy.
"I think we are seeing a similar phenomenon as we have seen in Germany that step by step politicians are giving in to the growing concerns about nuclear power," Sascha Müller-Kraenner, European representative to The Nature Conservancy, a US-based international environmental organization, told Deutsche Welle.
"We shouldn't forget that the tectonic plate, the Pacific plate that caused the earthquake in Japan and before Japan in Chile and New Zealand is exactly the same one that also touches on California," he said. And a number of US nuclear plants stand precisely on the margins of this plate, Müller-Kraenner added.
"This fact will come to light when it is discussed publicly and it will shed a new light on the policy of the administration."
While Americans haven't debated the safety of nuclear energy as fiercely and continuously as Europeans, particularly Germans, that doesn't mean there is a pro-nuclear consensus in the US.
"I wouldn't say there is a consensus," said Müller-Kraenner. "And we shouldn't forget that over the last 30 years no new nuclear power plant has been built in the US after the accident of Three Mile Island in Harrisburg in Pennsylvania."
In that incident in 1979, the most serious in US nuclear power plant operating history, a partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor occurred.
Müller-Kraenner notes that especially among Democrats there has always been a minority critical of nuclear energy. But in the context of the debate over climate change and the dependency on foreign oil their influence has been waning.
In addition, the Green Party, a major force behind the anti-nuclear movement in many European countries is virtually non-existent in the US. That and the absence of influential think tanks and NGO's with a clear anti-nuclear stance renders the opposition against nuclear energy less-organized and the general public less-informed about the risks of the technology than in Europe, argues Müller-Kraenner.
The US could phase out nuclear power, say experts
That the support by Americans for nuclear energy is indeed very limited was highlighted by an opinion survey conducted and released in February before the Japan disaster. Asked specifically in a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll what government subsidies should be slashed significantly to reduce the federal budget deficit, subsidies to build nuclear power plants clearly came in as the number one item to cut.
The opposition against federal subsidies for new nuclear plants is likely only to grow as the crisis in Japans deepens. The absence of subsidies however would probably mean that no new plants would be built in the US, as the utilities are unwilling to shoulder the prohibitive costs and risks alone.
That in turn could be a first step for an ultimate phase out of nuclear energy in the US as well. So far the only thing lacking has been the political will to do it, says Müller-Kraenner: "Technically I don't think it would pose bigger problems than in Germany."
Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge