Bingaman: Japan’s nuke crisis could prove ‘significant impediment’ to new US plants

Bingaman said he did not believe the crisis would ultimately be worse than the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

“But there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen. And I don’t pretend to have the answer to that, but I think it’s clearly a very significant and serious problem that we hope both the Japanese and ourselves can learn a great deal from,” he said.

Bingaman’s comments come as workers in Japan continue trying to bring the stricken complex under control. The March 11 earthquake and tsunami led to a loss of cooling that has prompted grave overheating of reactors and spent fuel rods, leading to radioactive releases.

Press reports Saturday showed new contamination fears and signs of progress in the battle to regain control of the plant.

“Japanese officials said Saturday that progress was being made toward stabilizing the rapidly deteriorating Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant as workers raced to restore electrical power to portions of the facility and set up an automated water cannon to drench two reactors for up to seven consecutive hours,” The Washington Post reported from Tokyo Saturday.

The Associated Press reports that “In the first sign that contamination from Japan's stricken nuclear complex had seeped into the food chain, officials said Saturday that radiation levels in spinach and milk from farms near the tsunami-crippled facility exceeded government safety limits.”

The Japanese crisis has added uncertainty to development of new U.S. nuclear plants.

Power companies such as Southern Company, Scana Corp., Duke Energy, Exelon and others have roughly 20 applications before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build reactors in the United States. The country currently has 104 reactors operating at 65 power plants, which supply roughly 20 percent of U.S. electricity.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group, expects that four to eight new reactors will be online by 2020.

The group anticipates that Southern Company’s planned addition of two reactors in Georgia and Scana’s plan to build two reactors in South Carolina will receive NRC approvals late this year or early next year.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is already constructing a second reactor at its Watts Bar plant, but it’s a unique case. Construction on the unit – first approved in 1973 – was suspended in the mid-1980s but the project was later revived.