Japan Earthquake Raises Questions About U.S. Nuclear Future

The tragedy in Japan has accelerated the debate on the use of nuclear power in the United States.

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The situation continues to get worse in Japan. Saturday, the Japanese government banned the sale of unpasteurized milk and several kinds of vegetables. Radiation levels are more than four times higher in Tokyo than they were two weeks ago.

The tragedy in Japan has accelerated the debate on the use of nuclear power in the United States. An immediate concern is the safety of the nuclear plants on the west coast. They are designed to withstand earthquakes that register 7.0 on the Richter scale. The quake in Japan clocked in at 9.0. You do the math. Moreover there are applications for permits for 17 new reactors here. Because of melting Arctic ice, ocean levels are rising but many of the existing plants are in coastal areas. Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts has called for a moratorium on granting these permits until we learn more about the causes of the disaster in Japan. [See photos of the aftermarth of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami.]

It will be tough selling Americans on the construction of new nuclear power plants. A new Gallup national survey indicates that the disaster in Far East has soured the American public on nuclear power. Traces of radiation from the Japanese nukes have already drifted to our west coast. Public health experts say that the the radiation from Japan is not toxic but these reassurances have not alleviated the concerns of Californians who are buying potassium iodide pills as fast as the pharmaceutical companies can make them.

But the opposition to nuclear will only encourage the nuclear power industry to redouble its efforts. A study by the Center for Responsive Politics shows the nuclear power lobbying group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, has spent $8 million to lobby Congress in the last four years. The companies seeking the new permits have made $8 million in campaign contributions since 2008. My guess is that this amount of money will be pocket change after the nuke lobby revs into high gear to convince Congress that what happened in Japan can’t happen here. [Take the U.S. News poll: Should the U.S. put a hold on building new nuclear power plants?]

The disasters in Japan and in the Gulf Coast all point to the need for immediate steps to develop clean and green energy sources. But the budget passed by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives eliminated loan guarantees for the development of renewable sources but left in the guarantees to develop nuclear power.

What kind of disaster will it take for us to make a concerted effort to develop clean and green energy here? I hope we don't wait to find out.

  • Vote Now: Should the U.S. put a hold on building new nuclear power plants?
  • Read how to give to Japan's victims.
  • See photos of the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami.