While the US government is moving American citizens out of Japan for fear of nuclear meltdown, the professed lack of concern about nuclear power in the United States among Washington elites defies common sense. From President Obama to Energy Secretary Steven Chu to scores of Republican leaders nodding in agreement, there is an almost Stepford-like faith in the mantra that nuclear energy is an essential part of the energy future. Even if one believes that policy decisions shouldn't be made in a moment of panic — and that reserving judgment is the best long-term course — the seeming conviction that a Japan-like disaster could not occur here is bizarre.
It's a testament, foremost, to the extent to which the nuclear industry has embedded itself in Washington. And it also suggests that George W. Bush wasn't alone among politicians in refusing to admit a mistake, even in the face of vast empirical evidence. Liberals who might once have been issuing China Syndrome-style alarms signed on to nuclear power over the past decade as an antidote to global warming; having determined that carbons are their real enemy, they can't alter their thinking. Obama, for his part, accepted that nuclear power will be part of the energy mosaic, in something of a political concession to Republicans, just as he did with offshore drilling. The idea was to appear reasonable and open to anything that will reduce dependence on foreign oil. After the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Obama sensibly backtracked and issued a moratorium on offshore drilling. That decision turned out to be a political loser on two levels. Obama's concession that drilling regulations may not have been sufficient to prevent the oil spill served to focus environmentalists' anger on the administration, while Republicans like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour claimed Obama's moratorium was responsible for higher prices at the pump. Now, it seems, Obama is reluctant to stir up any dust over nuclear power.
But the sanguine response in Washington to a nuclear disaster in Japan that is rapidly reeling toward the worst case scenario defies human emotion; it suggests that vital reflexes have been numbed. When the Hindenburg exploded and burned while landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey, the announcer Herbert Morrison spoke for the entire nation when the hydrogen-fueled airship went down. "Oh the humanity. . .I can hardly breathe. . .This is the worst thing I ever witnessed." No one stepped forward to declare that "hydrogen-fueled air travel is an essential part of our transportation future." It wouldn't have made any sense at that moment. Just like today's reassurances in Washington.
Image: The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after Japan's recent earthquake and tsunami.