After Japan's disaster, will nuclear energy have a future in America?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Post asked energy experts, lawmakers and others how the recent events in Japan would affect the "nuclear renaissance" in the United States. Below, responses from Steven F. Hayward, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R), Robert Shrum, Ellen Vancko, Marvin Fertel, Douglas E. Schoen and Frances Beinecke.


Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

Japan's nuclear disaster came at a time when nuclear power seemed poised for a new birth in the United States. Opinion polls have shown rising support for nuclear power over the past decade, after more than two decades of opposition. More significantly, environmentalists were slowly, tentatively abandoning their reflexive opposition to nuclear power because of the bigger problem of climate change. Japan's catastrophe hits the reset button on the whole issue. One irony is that the climate campaign is a big near-term loser, as carbon dioxide emissions in Japan and Germany (which switched off seven nuclear plants) will go up.

It is remotely possible that the aftermath of this disaster might ironically lead to the go-ahead for a new generation of smaller, safer nuclear designs that are in development. If Japan can come through the worst-case scenario, it might calm our longtime nuclear phobia. But many big questions remain unresolved: Putting aside Wall Street's reluctance to finance new nuclear plants, the insurance industry's inability to price the risk and underwrite new plants, and Congress's resistance to large loan guarantees, it is not clear that nuclear power can compete with suddenly cheap natural-gas-fired power on a level playing field.


Governor of Virginia

We have all watched with shock and sadness the recent events in Japan. While Americans donate generously to relief efforts, we must also keep a proper perspective about what Japan's disaster means for energy policy here. I believe it would be most unwise to let this unprecedented tragedy lead to the retraction or abandonment of the American nuclear energy industry. Nuclear energy is clean, reliable, affordable and critical to generating the volume of electricity we need to power our homes and businesses and grow our economy.

Virginia is home to two nuclear facilities, in Surry and Louisa counties. They generate roughly 40 percent of our electricity. They have multiple redundant systems to provide backup electrical power. The stations were also analyzed against worst-case acts of nature, such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, and modified as necessary to protect them. There are 19 emergency drills scheduled for this year.

We must use all our God-given resources here in America to pursue our goal of greater energy security. Nuclear energy is an important part of our energy portfolio. Virginia is moving forward with plans to build a third reactor in Louisa, and I support that effort. We should of course learn from the tragedy in Japan and use the unparalleled ingenuity and know-how of American scientists and our free-enterprise system to ensure that our nuclear plants continue to be prepared and improved. What we should not do is turn our back on an industry that provides needed clean and affordable energy while creating good jobs for Americans.

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