Japan's Nuclear Crisis Reignites Safety Debate

Japan continues efforts to contain the unfolding disaster.

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On Friday, Vermont Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote a letter to the president urging him to issue a moratorium on all NRC licensing and re-licensing decisions.

Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman Tom Kauffman says the nuclear industry has reason to remain confident that plants within the United States are safe. "All of our plants—whether they're on the [West] Coast or in the eastern part of the country—each plant is constructed to withstand the maximum projected earthquake at that site. It's a site-by-site situation that is revisited on a regular basis," says Kauffman. "There's going to be changes, but there's still going to be growth."

With 104 operating nuclear plants in the United States, nuclear power makes up approximately 20 percent of the total U.S. energy profile. As an arguably cleaner alternative to coal, gas, and oil, nuclear energy has gained bipartisan support in recent decades, especially as plants proved their safety. But the industry has faced an uphill battle, says Ferguson, even before the Fukushima plant began to break down. It has been more than three decades since construction began on a new nuclear power plant in the United States. The nuclear industry ascribes this to lack of financing, regulatory obstacles, and concerns over safety. [Take the U.S. News poll: Should the U.S. put a hold on building new nuclear power plants?]

Several lawmakers emphasized their commitment to nuclear power on Capitol Hill last week as they questioned federal experts on the safety of domestic plants. President Obama also continues to support nuclear energy, maintaining his request to Congress for $36 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear projects in next year's budget. Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Wednesday told Congress that the administration would wait to see what can be learned from Japan before halting the growth of nuclear power.

According to Kauffman, there are two reactors nearing construction in Georgia and another pair in South Carolina. Both have been designed using advanced "passive" safety mechanisms, unlike the "active" safety mechanism that failed in Japan. With the newer technology, the plants employ automatic cooling mechanisms that do not rely on external energy sources to keep the fuel rods stable.

Around the world, countries fearful for their own plants' integrity have pulled back operations at nuclear facilities. Germany, for example, announced that they would shut down plants that began operating before 1980. The European Union, which still remembers the world's greatest nuclear disaster to date in 1986 at Chernobyl, vowed last week to perform "stress tests" on nuclear plants there. And China, which had planned to increase its nuclear power seven-fold in the next decade, has pledged to stall approvals for pending nuclear projects. There has also been a run worldwide on potassium iodide pills, which help guard against the adverse health effects of radiation.

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