Japan reactor crisis: Obama, Republicans still back nukes

The Obama administration and senior Republicans offered a fresh show of support for nuclear power Monday even as the crisis involving Japanese reactors deepened.

The frenzied effort to contain overheating reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station — one of several plants facing problems after Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami — has injected further uncertainty into the nuclear industry’s push to build what would be the first new U.S. reactors in decades.

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The situation in Japan remained fluid but officials worried about the possibility of a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, according to reports, which said workers were trying to keep the cooling systems from malfunctioning simultaneously at three separate reactors in order to prevent a wider release of radioactive material.

But senior administration officials said Monday that President Obama remains committed to nuclear power, and that U.S. nuclear plants had been built to withstand the strain of strong storms and earthquakes.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said information is still coming in on the status of the damaged nuclear plants in Japan. But, for now, the administration is committed to keeping nuclear energy in the U.S. portfolio and sees it as a source of the future, even as it vowed to incorporate information from the Japanese woes as needed.

News outlets reported major setbacks Tuesday in the Japanese effort to bring the reactors under control, as it appeared one of the critical containment vessels had been damaged. The New York Times said the crisis had "veered toward catastrophe."

On Monday, before the crisis deepened, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also offered fresh support for nuclear power.

“I do believe that we certainly want to get to the bottom from learning lessons from Japan’s experience, for sure. But nuclear power is an essential part of the energy mix of this country. And the president has said so — I share that position,” Cantor told reporters.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is planning legislation aimed at streamlining the approval process for new plants.

Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, took to the floor to defend nuclear power, noting that the 1979 Three Mile Island accident — a partial meltdown — “completely changed the nuclear industry” and that there is robust industry and federal safety oversight.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies had earlier said the Japanese problems were comparable to Three Mile Island’s, but the situation appeared to have become more dire. The Chernobyl meltdown remains the worst nuclear accident in history.

The Japanese incidents come as a number of power companies have begun applying for Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses to build what would be the first new U.S. reactors in decades. The White House has supported the efforts.

The NRC takes into account the potential for major natural disasters before greenlighting nuclear facilities. In order to receive NRC approval, nuclear reactor designs must take into account “the most severe natural phenomena historically reported for the site and surrounding area,” an NRC backgrounder on nuclear power plants and earthquakes says. The commission then “adds a margin for error to account for the historical data’s limited accuracy.”

Last year the administration approved $8.3 billion worth of Energy Department loan guarantees for utility giant Southern Co. to add two new reactors to its Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia — a decision Obama announced personally. But the project would still need an NRC construction and operating license to move ahead.

The White House fiscal 2012 budget plan would give the Energy Department another $36 billion in loan guarantee authority for supporting new reactors, in addition to the roughly $10 billion worth the department has remaining.

And Obama used January’s State of the Union speech to float a “clean energy standard” that would require power companies to collectively supply 80 percent of U.S. electricity from various low-carbon sources — including nuclear power — by 2035.

Carney said Monday that although the crisis in Japan is still unfolding, the White House isn’t backing away from the proposed “clean” standard. He said that U.S. officials will incorporate information from Japan “into how we view safety and security of nuclear energy as a resource.” 

The nuclear industry, for its part, is seeking to prevent the Japanese problems from adding further uncertainty to its push to build new reactors — one that already faces hurdles in the form of high costs and competition from natural gas, among other challenges.

“We’re going to learn the lessons from Japan. And even if these events could occur here, which are highly unlikely, we’ll be even better prepared to deal with the kinds of things they’re dealing with in Japan right now,” said Tony Pietrangelo, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s chief nuclear officer, on Bloomberg TV.

The industry also has to battle a public-relations problem as photos from Japan show children being checked for radiation levels by workers in protective suits.

Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former senior policy adviser at the Energy Department, said he didn’t think an effort to boost loan guarantees for nuclear power would get through Congress.

“Given the combination that’s transpiring in Japan and the tremendous zeal now, especially by the Tea Party element of the Republican Party, to do deep cuts in the budget, I think the prospects of extending this loan guarantee program are very dim,” Alvarez told reporters Monday.

Frank Verrastro of the Center for Strategic and International Studies draws parallels to the blowout of BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

Last March the White House proposed selling oil-and-gas leases off the Atlantic Coast, and more widely in waters off Alaska’s coast, and asked Congress to ease restrictions in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The Deepwater Horizon rig blew up the next month, and, in December, the administration abandoned the eastern Gulf and Atlantic plans and sounded more cautious about Alaskan leasing. The administration — which has slowed down permitting in the Gulf of Mexico — also imposed tougher drilling-safety mandates that demand more robust spill containment capacity and planning.

Meanwhile, the crisis in Japan is prompting some Democrats and environmentalists to raise questions about building new plants and re-licensing existing facilities.

Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats  are calling on Republicans to hold hearings on U.S. nuclear power plant safety in light of the Japanese disaster.  “The worsening nuclear crisis in Japan is raising serious questions in the minds of many Americans about the safety and preparedness of nuclear power plants in the United States,” the committee’s ranking Democrat, Henry Waxman (Calif.); Energy and Power subcommittee ranking Democrat Bobby Rush (Ill.); Oversight and Investigations subcommittee ranking Democrat Diana DeGette (Colo.); and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said in a letter to the GOP leadership.

Sam Youngman, Molly K. Hooper and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this article.

This post was updated at 6:46 a.m. on Tuesday, March 15.