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Quake Shifts Axis of U.S. Support for Nuclear

As soon as the magnitude-8.9 earthquake had finished moving Japan closer to the United States, it began moving apart American political collaborators supporting nuclear power at home.

Hope for an entire sector of the energy industry can be summed up in one word: "Renaissance." The term has adorned news headlines, magazine covers and editorial metaphors about atomic power since 2001, the beginning of the second Bush administration. The stage seemed set.

Accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were finally fading from Americans' memories. A rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, then political explosions in the Middle East, handed the petroleum industry its share of setbacks. The coal industry, clean or not, took a hit from the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia. President Obama was supporting nuclear power and seeking tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to overcome the financial risks of expanding it.

Then the Earth moved. Before-and-after photos of northern Japan reveal destruction of an extent not seen since the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the dawn of the nuclear age.

As last weekend's headlines of likely radioactive leaks turned to reports of possible meltdowns in progress, "shock and awe" took on a new meaning.

The earthquake slightly shifted the axis of Earth's rotation, but in Washington a political alliance started to wobble. Parties who, until Friday, aligned behind nuclear power as a baseload energy source that would play a role in slowing climate change, began to suggest caution.

Jason Grumet, an energy and climate change adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign, told the New York Times' John Broder that "the accident certainly has diminished what had been a growing impetus in the environmental community to support nuclear power as part of a broad bargain on energy and climate policy."

A White House spokesman said the Obama administration is committed to learning from the events unfolding in Japan, and reiterated the President's commitment to a diverse set of energy sources that includes wind and solar power.

Representative Edward J. Markey (D-MA), who set aside his skepticism of nuclear power to co-sponsor a bill that supported its expansion, told the Times that regulators should consider a moratorium on locating nuclear plants in seismically active areas and thoroughly review all plants in the U.S. that use similar technology. "The unfolding disaster in Japan must produce a seismic shift in how we address nuclear safety here in America," Markey said.

Of course some on the right, such as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), are advocating a "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" attitude.

The bipartisan consensus was a long time in the making. A similar consensus regarding the U.S. policy reaction to the earthquake-related nuclear accidents in Japan will be slow, and perhaps impossible, to achieve. A Senate hearing this week may be the beginning of an effort to realign on issues of nuke technology, plant emergency planning, construction financial risks, and the wisdom of legislating $54.5 billion in taxpayer-funded nuclear loan guarantees.

One fact should be an easy point of agreement: Disregarding the Japan experience and carelessly forging ahead with nuclear expansion would be a bad move that could spell the end of "renaissance" -- and of the career hopes of thousands of nuclear workers -- in the United States.

Follow-ups --
Reported in the NY Times 16 March 2011:
Gregory Jaczko, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s chairman, told two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees March 16 that "U.S. nuclear facilities remain safe." The Congressional committees had originally planned to consider Mr. Jaczko's agency’s budget for the coming fiscal year at the hearing.

Industry observer Ken Silverstein always has an interesting perspective. Read his 18 March 2011 piece "Will the Nuclear Sector Rise Again?" in EnergyBiz, a power industry magazine that typically takes the side of atomic energy.

Comments

Too much emphasis on one disaster is always a danger; it also seems unwise to ignore completely a nuclear meltdown in Japan and its implications for a “nuclear renaissance” elsewhere. Obviously, not everywhere is an earthquake.

As the global economy expands, folks are worried about higher energy prices. There's also some concern about higher long-term interest rates. One could also find worry about freight rates, industrial commodity prices, and any number of other prices. Should business leaders be worried?


I would like to see more of the research money in nuclear go into small-scale thorium, personally. But meanwhile, what’s happened to the various million-roof initiatives? Ramping up production of thin-film solar combined with unplugging half our stuff would go a LONG way toward retiring nuke/fossil, despite all the head-wagers that say it can’t be done … I’ve lived off-grid, and, y’know, I could do it again, though I’m getting old. Not that much to it!