President Obama on Thursday ordered a safety review of the nation's nuclear power plants in an effort to quell mounting fears sparked by the unfolding catastrophe in Japan.
“When we see a crisis like the one in Japan, we have a responsibility to learn from this event and to draw from those lessons to ensure the safety and security of our people,” Obama said during remarks in the Rose Garden.
Even as the president called for the review, he sought to assure the public that the nation’s nuclear facilities are sound.
“Our nuclear power plants have undergone exhaustive study and have been declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies,” Obama said.
Officials attending a White House briefing on the crisis in Japan emphasized that they see no danger of any harmful radiation reaching the U.S. or its territories. Obama said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend any precautionary measures for the public other than “staying informed.”
The president’s remarks underscored the domestic political stakes in the Japanese crisis. Nuclear power is a key part of the White House’s energy strategy, but recent polling indicates the images of Japan’s stricken reactors are causing the public to question whether the power source is worth the risk.
The president called nuclear energy “an important part of our energy future, along with renewable sources like wind, solar, natural gas and clean coal.”
Obama’s remarks came a day after Gallup published a poll showing that 70 percent of Americans say the Japanese woes have made them more concerned about a disaster occurring in the U.S. Thirty-nine percent said they were “a lot” more concerned, and 31 percent said they were “a little” more concerned.
The same poll, taken March 15, found that public opinion is divided on construction of new reactors in the United States. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they oppose additional nuclear facilities, while 44 percent expressed support.
The Obama administration is seeking to help the nuclear industry finance the first fleet of new U.S. reactors in decades. The president is also calling for Congress to enact a “clean energy standard” that would require a huge increase in power from low-carbon sources in coming decades — including nuclear plants.
Democrats in Congress have begun raising new questions about the safety of the nation’s nuclear fleet, especially reactors that lie on fault lines, and are calling for new reviews.
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who leads the panel’s nuclear safety subcommittee, sent the NRC a letter Thursday seeking a probe of U.S. reactors’ ability to withstand major natural disasters.
Earlier Thursday, U.S. officials defended their grave assessment of the situation in Japan as Obama made an unannounced visit to that country’s embassy to sign a condolence book.
Obama said that Americans have been “both heartbroken and deeply concerned” about the situation in Japan.
“We will continue to keep the American people fully updated, because I believe you must know what I know as president,” Obama said.
Greg Jaczko, chairman of the NRC, told reporters at the White House on Thursday that “basic physics and basic science tells us” that harmful radiation reaching the U.S. is unlikely.
Jaczko said there are 35 boiling-water reactors in the United States and 23 reactors with the Mark 1 containment design, both similar to the stricken reactors in Japan.
He declined to say whether any of those plants sat on fault lines, but stressed that the country’s reactors are safe.
The officials also explained why the U.S. is advising that all Americans in Japan stay at least 50 miles away from the hobbled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, where six nuclear reactors were damaged by an earthquake and ensuing tsunami.
Jaczko and Energy Department Deputy Secretary Dan Poneman said that their advice to widen the evacuation area from the 20 kilometers (12 miles) recommended by the Japanese was a “prudent” decision based on their independent analysis.
“There’s often conflicting information, so we made what we thought was a prudent decision,” Jaczko said.
Japan is continuing to struggle to contain damage at the Fukushima Daiichi complex, and on Thursday workers were spraying water on spent fuel rods to try to cool them. Workers have been forced to retreat at times because of high levels of radiation, according to media reports.
Many inside and outside Japan are questioning whether officials in that country are being forthcoming about the full scope of the dangers of the nuclear disaster. Jaczko gave a grave assessment to Congress on Wednesday, warning of high levels of radiation near the plant.
Poneman said that the fluid events on the ground are “genuinely complex ... genuinely confusing.”
The NRC dispatched an additional 11 of its top nuclear technicians to Tokyo, and the Department of Energy has sent in another 33 people and more than 17,000 pounds of equipment.
The nuclear industry, meanwhile, is waging a vigorous campaign to keep lawmakers abreast of the earthquake- and tsunami-driven crisis in Japan — and seeking to ensure it does not erode Capitol Hill support for nuclear power.
The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) — the industry’s main trade group — has held numerous briefings with congressional staff and lawmakers in recent days.
And NEI announced Thursday that chief nuclear officers from the nation’s power plants conferred this week and agreed to take a number of steps to ensure plants can withstand catastrophic events.
According to NEI, power plant executives are taking actions to verify their companies’ ability to “mitigate conditions that result from severe adverse events, including the loss of significant operational and safety systems due to natural events, fires, aircraft impact and explosions.”
Other steps include ensuring that the “capability to mitigate a total loss of electric power to a nuclear power plant is proper and functional” and “verify[ing] the capability to mitigate flooding and the impact of floods on systems inside and outside the plant.”
Andrew Restuccia contributed to this article.