The devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan last week as given way to recovery and an early effort to rebuild the stricken region, but a potentially more serious crisis is ongoing at two nuclear power plants in the northern portion of the country.
The nuclear crisis is being watched closely for impacts not just in Japan, but around the world.
The news has gotten progressively more grim in the days following the actual quake, with the latest developments being another explosion at one plant’s reactor and heightened fears of a full-blown nuclear meltdown. Officials say they are “not optimistic” about efforts to cool the overheating reactors and control the nuclear material within the reactors.
While Japan fights to prevent an unprecedented nuclear catastrophe, the global focus has shifted to the overall safety of nuclear power and whether relying on what proponents call a “clean” energy solution to rising demand for electricity is wise in the wake of the cascade of disasters that has Japan on the brink.
Some countries have already acted on questions over the safety of nuclear power. Switzerland has canceled plans to build new nuclear power plants and upgrade older ones until comprehensive safety reviews can be done, and Germany has scrapped a deal to extend the lives of its 17 nuclear plants, leading to the imminent shut-down of at least two. The governments of both nations cited the need for a full review of what went wrong in Japan as the reason behind the decisions to pull back from nuclear expansion.
No such immediate developments regarding the future of nuclear power is occurring in the United States, where 18 new nuclear power plants are currently proposed.
New questions are being raised about aggressively pro-nuclear proposals from House Republicans. GOP legislation would mandate an unprecedented flurry of government-backed nuclear projects that call for the building of 200 new nuclear power plants by 2030 and the official designation of the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada as a nuclear waste depository.
While the Obama administration has openly embraced the expansion of nuclear power, they have opposed the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project, something nuclear proponents say is necessary if many new plants will be built. GOP Rep. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers says that Republicans ” have the goal of opening Yucca Mountain.”
Indeed, the initial reaction from the Obama administration and many lawmakers on Capitol Hill has been generally in favor of nuclear expansion despite the crisis in Japan.
The White House says the president supports “a diverse set of energy sources” that includes “nuclear power.” A spokesman said that “the administration is committed to learning from them and ensuring that nuclear energy is produced safely and responsibly here in the U.S.”
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York said that he is “still willing to look at nuclear” after the Japanese accident, and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell also openly embraced nuclear power, saying that the aftermath of a “catastrophe” isn’t a “good time” to change America’s pro-nuclear energy policy.
One leading critic of nuclear in the wake of Japan has been Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT). Lieberman said on Sunday that “we don’t know” what will happen with the Japanese reactors and that the crisis “naturally” should lead the United States to “put the brakes on right now ” in regards to building new nuclear plants.
“The reality is that we’re watching something unfold,” he said in an interview for CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We don’t know where it’s going with regard to the nuclear power plants in Japan right now. I think it calls on us here in the U.S. – naturally not to stop building nuclear power plants, but to put the brakes on right now until we understand the ramifications of what’s happened in Japan.”
Japan, which was ravaged by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami last week, is now struggling with a growing nuclear crisis as a partial meltdown is already likely under way at one nuclear reactor, and operators are frantically trying to prevent the disaster from growing worse.
Noting that while in recent years the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had enacted upgraded emergency contingency plans for nuclear power plants in the event of a natural disaster, Lieberman said the situation in Japan could be instructive in preventing future crises.
“We’ve got 104 nuclear power plants in America now. I was informed this morning that about 23 of them are built according to designs that are similar to the nuclear power plants in Japan that are now the focus of our concern,” he told CBS News’ Bob Schieffer.
“I’ve been a big supporter of nuclear power because it’s domestic, it’s ours and it’s clean,” Lieberman said. “We’ve had a good safety with nuclear power plants here in the United States… I don’t want to stop the building of nuclear power plants, but I think we’ve got to kind of quietly, 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 online.”
Other lawmakers are not so concerned about the threat of nuclear meltdowns.
Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa said flat-out on Monday that Japan changes nothing and that “we need to move forward” with building new nuclear plants in the U.S.