Sunday, March 13, 2011 | 8:22 p.m.
WASHINGTON - The partial meltdown of several nuclear power plants around Japan as a result of a tsunami that wrought untold havoc there over the weekend is forcing a discussion about nuclear safety in the United States that could have big consequences for Nevada.
Development of nuclear as an energy alternative has been getting a huge political push in recent months, with both the Obama administration and the new Republican majority in the House favoring investment in the field, including restarting construction on nuclear power plants that have been waiting in the wings since the Three Mile Island incident in the ‘70s.
That new attention has, in turn, raised the question of what’s to happen with Yucca Mountain -- Nevada’s potential waste-dump site that hasn’t yet been approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but hasn’t been scratched either.
Yucca Mountain has been off the agenda under the Obama administration’s last few budget requests, but now that Republicans are dictating much of the process, it’s back on. Last month, House leadership made sure to include a prohibition against using federal funds to wind down operations at the site in their fiscal 2011 budget reduction bill, on the rationale that the nuclear industry can’t expand until there is a place to dump spent waste.
While the Obama administration hasn’t taken the same tack on Yucca, there does seem to have been an inevitability about the issue for the last few months. “Clean” power nuclear energy is the one area in which the Obama administration’s renewable-friendly and the Republicans’ oil-and-gas friendly energy priorities seem to intersect, meaning a broad roll-out of nuclear power facilities was to be a likely fulcrum of any greater energy deal.
But the Japan incident already seems to be giving many in Washington pause about just how great an idea that nuclear roll-out might be.
Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has been a backer of nuclear, said Sunday on "Face the Nation" that he thinks the U.S. should abandon its plans for nuclear expansion for now.
“I think we’ve got to kind of quietly, quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan,” he said.
Other senators in both parties have said the meltdown should only push the United States to direct more attention to developing safety and security measures for new facilities.
But to date, discussion about the potential for nuclear accidents in the United States has centered around problems of transportation, faulty machinery and human error -- not the kind of cataclysmic natural disasters that nobody can predict, fully safeguard against or control.
While much of the United States is susceptible to tsunamis, there are several active fault lines and areas of volcanic activity not far from where existing nuclear power plants, nuclear reactors for research purposes and other proposed commercial sites are located. The West Coast is the worst: in California, home to some of the country’s oldest licensed nuclear power plants, there are at least two full-scale commercial plants near the San Andreas fault, the country’s most earthquake-prone region.
While nuclear experts have argued that the plants in the U.S. have been built with the utmost attention to earthquake resistance, it’s also the case that the nuclear power plants currently in operation in the United States all date back, in part or in whole, to construction dates of more than 30 years ago.
But now that the issue is on the table, it appears the fear of an accident that has gripped Nevadans for several years is now spreading to other states’ representatives as they wait to see the full extent of the damage that will result from the Japanese crisis -- and decide if for them, too, the risks of nuclear power hit too close to home. If they do, it could be the final nail in the nuclear Yucca project that so many Nevadans have waited for.