By Vicki Needham - 03/13/11 06:04 PM EDT
Some U.S. lawmakers are looking to “put the brakes” on building new nuclear power plants after witnessing the crisis at several Japanese reactors that were rocked by Friday’s massive earthquake and tsunami.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) called for a temporary moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants in the United States following the Japanese quake, which damaged two reactors at a nuclear facility in the country's northeast.
"The reality is that we're watching something unfold," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "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."
"I've been a big supporter of nuclear power because it's domestic, it's ours and it's clean," Lieberman said. "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."
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he, too, was watching the dangers at Japan’s nuclear plants and considering the domestic implications.
"I'm still willing to look at nuclear, but it has to be done safely and carefully,” he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Bottom line is we do have to free ourselves from our dependence on foreign oil."
When asked on Fox News Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said domestic policy decisions shouldn't be made right now based on an event in Japan.
“I don’t think that right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy," he said. "I think that we ought to be concentrating on helping the Japanese on any way that we can.”
Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, warned Saturday that the U.S. is vulnerable to the same type of nuclear accident.
“I am also struck by the fact that the tragic events now unfolding in Japan could very easily occur in the United States,” Markey said. “What is happening in Japan right now shows that a severe accident at a nuclear power plant can happen here."
Markey called on the Obama administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to consider the implementation of several policy changes in light of the disaster.
Among the proposed reforms, he called for a moratorium of siting new nuclear reactors on seismically active areas and called for reactors in seismically active zones to be retrofitted with stronger containment systems.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) plans to question the top U.S. nuclear power regulator next week about damage to Japanese nuclear reactors.
“[W]e will use that opportunity to explore what is known in the early aftermath of the damage to Japanese nuclear facilities, as well as to reiterate our unwavering commitment to the safety of U.S. nuclear sites,” Upton said in a statement about the hearing, which was scheduled to review the NRC and Energy Department budget plans.
There are 104 nuclear plants operating in the United States, with construction on all of them beginning in 1974 or earlier.
Although there has been a push in the past several years for more plants – Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has called for upward of 100 new plants within 20 years – there are only about a dozen in with works with most companies bowing out because of high construction costs.
The trade association for the U.S. nuclear industry does not think that domestic plans should change because of the current situation. “It’s premature to draw any conclusions from the tragedy in Japan,” said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.
There are some 16 potential nuclear reactors with applications in front of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and all of those exceed current safety standards set by the commission, according to Kerekes.
Japanese authorities said Sunday that they were unable to restart the cooling system at one of the reactors damaged by Friday's earthquake, as officials struggled to bring several other damaged reactors under control.
Some nuclear experts estimated it would be at least several days before it's known whether the situation is under control and a crisis has been averted.
Japanese Prime Minister Prime Minister Naoto Kan called the disaster the country's biggest crisis since World War II. Kan said that along coastal areas workers are having a "hard time" distributing food. The government was exploring the possibility of delivering food by sea or air, given the problems with roads en route to the north.
Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan's ambassador to the United States, downplayed concerns over a partial meltdown in several of the nation's nuclear reactors, saying he felt like efforts to cool the reactors with a mixture of clean and sea water would work – even as some said that those measures would be a last-ditch attempt to avoid a major crisis.
"I do not know if you call it desperate, but we have tried to take other measures but now think this is the right result to do that," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
He explained that the situation doesn't involve the melting of the core reactor or even "a substantial part of the reactor."
Japanese officials are evacuating about 170,000 residents within about 13 miles of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to avoid potential risks to the population.
"We have to take quick action, and we have to take a cautious attitude – and also mobilize all our forces," Fujisaki said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said workers haven't been able to successfully cool the overheated reactors and concern was growing about the possibility of partial nuclear meltdown.
He said there was trouble with two units at the nuclear facility, including one that lost its outer containment wall in an explosion on Saturday.
In line with Fujisaki's comments, Edano insisted that an explosion wouldn't create a health hazard.
Edano said that a similar explosion could soon occur at another unit, although he added that it could withstand an explosion.
"At the risk of raising further public concern, we cannot rule out the possibility of an explosion," Edano said.
Japanese officials also declared a state of emergency at a nuclear power plant in Onagawa, where excessive radiation levels were reported.
This story was updated at 4:00 p.m.