Some nervously eye U.S. nuclear plants

By Jeff Mason and Will Dunham
Monday, March 14, 2011

Anxiety over Japan's quake-crippled nuclear reactors has triggered calls from U.S. lawmakers and activists for a review of U.S. energy policy and for brakes on expansion of domestic nuclear power.

President Obama has urged expansion of nuclear power to help meet the country's energy demands, lower its dependence on imported fossil fuels and reduce climate-warming greenhouse-gas emissions.

But as engineers in Japan tried Sunday to avert a meltdown at three nuclear reactors after Friday's massive earthquake, some U.S. policymakers were reevaluating their assessment of nuclear energy, even as the industry offered assurances about the safety of new and existing plants.

"I don't want to stop the building of nuclear power plants," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said on CBS television's "Face the Nation."

"But I think we've got to kind of quietly put, quickly put, the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami and then see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming on line," Lieberman said.

Since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., many Americans have harbored concerns about nuclear power's safety.

Controversy has also dogged the nuclear power industry because of radioactive waste, which is now stored on-site at reactor locations nationwide.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the industry in Washington, said regulators are reviewing license applications for 20 reactors that could be built over the next 15 to 20 years. Four to eight reactors are slated to begin operating between 2016 to 2020, spokesman Steven Kerekes said.

"It is a fairly measured build-out program," he said. "We feel it would be premature at this point to draw any conclusions from the tragic events in Japan relative to the U.S. program."

In February 2010, Obama announced $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build the first U.S. nuclear power plant in nearly three decades. The backing helps Southern Co. build two reactors at a plant in Georgia.

The White House said it is watching the events in Japan for lessons about nuclear safety but indicated that no major policy changes are imminent.

"Information is still coming in about the events unfolding in Japan, but the administration is committed to learning from them and ensuring that nuclear energy is produced safely and responsibly here in the U.S.," spokesman Clark Stevens said.

He added: "The president believes that meeting our energy needs means relying on a diverse set of energy sources that includes renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power."

- Reuters

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