Japan's nuclear crisis might cause rethink of Duke Energy plans

The Charlotte ObserverMarch 15, 2011 

As Japan struggles to contain its radiation-leaking plants, a U.S. nuclear industry that's still looking for a renaissance braces for the domestic fallout.

The reaction could begin this morning, when Duke Energy asks the N.C. Utilities Commission to endorse its decision to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a new nuclear plant southwest of Charlotte. In all, six new reactors are planned in the Carolinas.

A natural disaster here on the scale of Japan's is unlikely, and utilities say the six plants now operating are safe. But the public appetite for building new ones could slip, experts say.

"My guess is that all the negative publicity is going to put a chill on the renewed interest in nuclear energy, whether it's justified or not," said Michael Doster, a nuclear engineering professor at N.C. State University. "Until it's all played out and we know what happened, the only thing people are going to remember are the screams and yells."

Japan's crisis erupted as high costs and nervous investors have delayed a long-expected resurgence of new U.S. nuclear plants. The nation's worst nuclear accident, at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979, was followed by cancellations of 46 U.S. plants.

Switzerland on Monday ordered a freeze on new plants or replacements until safety standards have been reviewed. Germany suspended for three months a decision to extend the life of its nuclear power plants. Russia, China, Poland and even earthquake-prone Chile said they will stick to their plans to build more reactors.

Seismic activity is a key when utilities decide where to build new power plants.

Carolinas nuclear plants are built to withstand the worst earthquake on record in the two states, the magnitude 7.6 disaster that hit Charleston in 1886. That quake killed 110 people and could be felt across the East. Japan's registered 9.0 on Friday.

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