Japan’s nuclear disaster leaving aftershocks in U.S. energy market

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Will the U.S. stop pursuing nuclear power in light of the recent disaster in Japan?The worst nuclear power catastrophe in decades—perhaps ever—has occurred in Japan in the aftermath of the devastating 8.9 magnitude earthquake. The tragic news already is affecting how politicians in the U.S. are looking at the future of nuclear power.

Last week’s quake and resulting plant failure in Japan are also likely to increase interest in solar and wind, since costs for new nuclear power plants could be impacted by increased safety measures and other regulations. Environmental and solar-advocacy groups are taking a wait-and-see approach before changing their position related to the tragic events.

“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," said Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman on CBS’ "Face the Nation." "We've got 104 nuclear power plants in America now. I was informed this morning that about 23 of them are built according to designs that are similar to the nuclear power plants in Japan that are now the focus of our concern," he said.

The earthquake, the largest in Japan’s recorded history, dropped 250 miles of the country by two feet in altitude and moved parts of its shoreline 13 feet closer to the U.S. This has destabilized three nuclear reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant, which have experienced failures leading to at least partial meltdowns and plant explosions. The impact of the tragedy cannot be fully realized until the reactors are stabilized and the full extent of radiation damage is assessed—the world waits and hopes any radiation leaks are limited.

“I think like most organizations, we’re in a wait-and-see mode,” said Elgie Holstein, a former Obama presidential campaign advisor and senior director for strategic planning for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Land, Water & Wildlife Program. He said it is too early to tell the extent of the damage. “There needs to be immediate international assistance in Japan and help from the [United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency].

“If you look ahead, one of the things you can say about solar and wind both, is that they both represent technologies in which costs are falling. I think one of the unknowns about the current developments in Japan is how these problems may affect the costs of nuclear, which have been a longstanding obstacle to new construction,” Holstein said. “There’s certainly the possibility this will cause nuclear costs to rise [in terms of] new safety standards, higher borrowing costs. Last but not least, the state of American public opinion is likely to be affected as this crisis continues. That too will be a factor in the ability and willingness of nuclear plant sponsors to site and receive regulatory approval at the state levels as well as to site new plants.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council said, thus far, the event hasn’t changed its opinion on nuclear.

“We’ve never really come out against nuclear. It needs to be safe, it shouldn’t get federal taxpayer subsidies. And it’s got to be cost-effective and stand on its own,” said NRDC spokesperson Bob Keefe.

Plans for the first new nuclear reactors in the U.S. in more than two decades haven’t changed because of the recent events, however. The two new planned reactors at Southern Co.’s Plant Vogtle in Georgia are in the final permitting stages, said spokesperson Beth Thomas. “Based on what we know now, we don’t expect these events will have any impact,” she said.

The site already has two nuclear reactors.

“The potential for an earthquake is significantly lower [than in Japan],” she said. As is the magnitude potential: The site is about 130 miles inland and 230 feet above sea level, she said. “The AP-1000 Westinghouse design also significantly exceeds the seismic requirements for the Plant Vogtel site,” she said.

Since the full impact of the event remains to be seen, there are still a lot of unknowns.

“There needs to be full transparency with respect to the events that are unfolding,” Holstein said. That will be key to assembling a public consensus behind what’s required in the U.S. in terms of safety at new and old nuclear reactors in the country.

Pictured: The Fukushima Daiichi site, courtesy of the Tokyo Electric Power company, prior to the explosions.