US nuclear energy gets more scrutiny

By Beth Daley and Theo Emery
Globe Staff / March 14, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

The Obama administration’s push for construction of nuclear power plants, financed with taxpayer-backed loan guarantees, faces new uncertainty in the wake of the Japanese disaster and new questions about safety of such facilities.

The crisis in Japan could also stir debate about whether to lengthen the lifetimes of two nuclear power plants in New England, politicians and environmentalists say.

Yesterday, some leading politicians took to Sunday talk shows and other venues to say that the Japanese crisis should prompt at least a pause in the US effort to restart the country’s nuclear industry, if not put an end to the attempt.

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, said Japan’s crisis illustrates why the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, near Brattleboro, should not operate after next year. The day before Japan’s earthquake, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended the plant’s license for 20 years beyond 2012, when its original license was set to expire.

“We act as if they can be run beyond their design life, when the engineering is primitive compared to what one would build today,’’ he said. “I think the tragedy in Japan should awaken a reexamination of our irrational exuberance about running our aging plants beyond their design life.’’

Laurence Smith, a spokesman for Vermont Yankee’s owner, Entergy Corp., declined to comment on the governor’s statement, saying “he’s free to say whatever he wants.’’ But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s review shows the plant is safe, he said.

“We’re not going to have a tsunami on the Connecticut River in Vernon, Vermont,’’ he said.

Pilgrim Nuclear Station in Plymouth, which is also owned by Entergy Corp. and has also requested a 20-year extension, was cited by the NRC this month for an unspecified low to moderate security problem.

Both plants have the same containment design as does the most critically compromised Japanese reactor.

Until last week’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the nuclear industry had hoped the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear disasters were distant memories to politicians and the public. The industry, and the Obama administration, had worked to convince the public — and even some prominent environmentalists — that new reactors are a critical component of fighting global warming because they do not release heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.

The Nuclear Energy Commission has requests for 22 new reactors, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.

With costs to build a reactor anywhere from $6 billion to $10 billion, the federal government has stepped in to help finance them. The government has offered a loan guarantee for a proposed plant in Georgia, and President Obama has requested an additional $36 billion in loan guarantees in his proposed 2012 budget, in addition to $18.5 billion already allotted.

Even nuclear industry critics say it is too early to tell what effect Japan’s crisis will have on US policy, but they predicted it will at least spark a reexamination about whether a fail-safe nuclear plant is possible.

“The nuclear enterprise rests on public faith the industry and regulators know what they are doing,’’ said Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When a mishap occurs at a nuclear plant, “the more fundamental [message] that seeps into the public consciousness is that something happened that they were assured would not happen.’’

US Representative Edward J. Markey of Malden, a leading Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the events in Japan should spur the Obama administration to review its position on nuclear power, including a “complete reevaluation’’ of the loan guarantees. He also said there should be a moratorium on new plants.

“They have to call a timeout and go back and review all of the safety requirements at nuclear power plants in our country, especially the adequacy of the backup power systems, and I believe they also need to reevaluate the economic feasibility of nuclear power in the light of the catastrophe,’’ he said.

But Tom Kauffman, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, said it is premature to discuss Japan’s impact on the United States until more is learned about what went wrong. He said there are multiple backup systems at nuclear plants.

“Keep in mind the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates and monitors and ensures these plants are in top condition’’ and are built to withstand and exceed any local natural event, Kauffman said. He said US plants have had a “superb safety record and performance’’ in the last 30 years.

Some specialists say the industry’s revival effort was already in trouble because of the astronomically high costs of building reactors and a recession that weakened energy demand. The decreasing price of natural gas also has made nuclear energy less competitive. And the failure of Congress to pass climate-change legislation, which might have increased the costs of carbon-producing sources such as coal-fired plants, has hurt the nuclear industry’s ability to sell itself as a power generator that does not add to global warming.

“The nuclear renaissance is not in trouble right now because of what happened in Japan,’’ said Ellen Vancko, senior energy adviser for the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists. “It is in trouble because of economics.’’

Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman, said the administration’s first priority is to support Japan and any Americans there, while monitoring the situation and providing assistance. But the administration “is committed to learning from [Japan’s disaster] and ensuring that nuclear energy is produced safely and responsibly,’’ he said.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who chairs the Senate Homeland Security committee, stopped short of calling for a moratorium, but said the United States should reevaluate plans for new plants.

“I’ve been a big supporter of nuclear power because it’s domestic, it’s ours, and it’s clean,’’ Lieberman said on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation.’’

“I don’t want to stop building nuclear power plants,’’ he said, “but I think we’ve got to quietly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami, and then see what more — if anything — we can demand of the new power plants that are coming on line.’’

In Plymouth, opponents of the Pilgrim plant don’t want the facility to receive a 20-year extension unless its owner ramps up security and meets the latest specifications for new plants, among other things.

Plymouth has the distinction of waiting the longest among the nation’s nuclear power plants for relicensing permission from the NRC. In New Hampshire, the Seabrook nuclear power plant is just starting its relicensing bid.

In Vermont, meanwhile, the crisis is being cited by environmentalists as another reason to oppose the relicensing of Vermont Yankee, which went on line in 1972.

“Every Vermonter has been thinking about the age of Vermont Yankee,’’ said James Moore, clean energy program director for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization.

“This is putting a finer point on what could happen if something really goes wrong.’’

Beth Daley can be reached at Theo Emery can be reached at Daley reported from Boston; Emery from Washington.