Japan's crisis intensifies debate: Is nuclear worth it?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 16, 2011 

WASHINGTON — As the six-day nuclear crisis worsened in Japan on Wednesday, China announced it was suspending construction to rethink its designs for nuclear plants, following the lead of Switzerland and Germany.

In Washington, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a big proponent of nuclear power, told Congress that the Obama administration wants money to help power companies build from six to eight new plants in the U.S.

And opponents of nuclear power were busy arguing that the health risks facing Japanese citizens are much worse than the public is being led to believe.

They're all examples of a debate rekindled by the frightening blasts at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan: For the first time since the nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, people around the globe are trying to figure out the pros and cons of nuclear safety.

Committees are meeting on Capitol Hill, with politicians demanding answers. And experts on all sides are offering their views. Such a roiling debate, combined with escalating costs, stopped the industry cold in America three decades ago.

Now comes the question: Is the potential catastrophe in Japan making this debate any different? Or will President Barack Obama's view that nuclear power is needed to combat climate change be enough to change the dynamics?

The debate intensified Wednesday as the U.S. urged all Americans living within 50 miles of the damaged plant in Japan to evacuate. And the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Japan faces an increasingly dangerous situation.

Opponents are seizing the moment — but Washington lawmakers have been reluctant to promise any change in policy.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., for instance, noted that while he's "not a big fan of nuclear power . . . We don't make (decisions) out of emotion; we don't make them because of a catastrophe in another country. So before we make the decision, let's be thoughtful about it."

Nevertheless, foes of nuclear power pushed hard.

In a conference call with reporters, Ira Helfand, past president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, said a meltdown of each reactor at Japanese plant would be the equivalent of "a thousand Hiroshimas."

He said that people living as far away at Tokyo are at risk, and that any assurance that the total dose of radiation is low "needs to be taken with a grain of salt." He said that people could be susceptible to cancers if they inhale or ingest just a small dose of radiation, even if they're far away from an exploding reactor.

"No dose is safe," he said.

"It's an extremely serious situation," added David Richardson, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina.

Most health officials say there's no health risk to Americans, because any radioactive material would disperse by the time it reached the West Coast.

And Marvin Resnikoff, a nuclear physicist and an international consultant on radioactive waste issues, said it would take from five to eight days for any radioactive material to get across the ocean.

"This is going to be a continual problem for months," he noted.

Chu went to Capitol Hill for the second consecutive day to sell the president's plan, which seeks $36 billion in loan guarantees for new power plants as part of the White House's 2012 budget.

He dismissed a suggestion by Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California that Congress needs to hold hearings on the safety of the industry, saying an internal assessment will "naturally occur" as U.S. officials study what went wrong in Japan.

"We're always increasing the safety of our reactors," Chu said.

While the $36 billion would pay for six to eight nuclear plants, Chu said the White House hopes for the industry to have enough confidence that the private sector would then step in and pay more of the costs.

He said the administration hasn't changed its thinking on nuclear power since the crisis in Japan began unfolding.

Most lawmakers aren't eager to pursue policy changes, either. While they want more information about the safety of nuclear power in the U.S., and are proposing more hearings, most stopped short of proposing any legislation.

"I don't think there should be a mad rush to say nuclear power generation is bad. I think we need a timeout and take a look at it," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "And I'm sure we'll have the experts tell us some things we could have done better."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took a similar view. "I just don't think we ought to, in the wake of a crisis, be making long-term decisions about America's energy sufficiency."

Part of their dilemma is that a lot of lawmakers have nuclear plants in their districts and states, plants that have long operated efficiently and provided much-needed power — with no emissions. About 20 percent of the country's electricity is generated by nuclear plants.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who calls himself a "strong supporter of nuclear power" and has a nuclear plant in his southern Maryland district, was also circumspect.

"I think (the Japan crisis) is a wake-up call to look very seriously at the safety of (nuclear) reactors," he said, "to make sure that they are, in fact, as secure as we can possibly make them from natural disasters, as well as manmade attacks on them."

As a result, Reid said, "There will be some activity, some hearings. I think there's nothing wrong with that as it relates to nuclear power. But I think the main issue is let's not be rambunctious. Let's take our time."

Meanwhile, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, urged the military to carefully track radiation exposure for U.S. service members who are aiding in the Japanese relief efforts.

She said that 17 military personnel who had been aboard three helicopters were exposed to low levels of contamination when they flew through a plume of radioactive contaminants.

In the past, Murray said, the military has had a "track record of failing to monitor exposures," which has made it difficult for previous generations of veterans to receive benefits.

(Tom Lasseter contributed to this article from Beijing.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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