THE Obama administration has insisted nuclear power will remain a key component of America’s energy mix, despite worldwide anxiety over the safety of reactors and a call by Democrats for a check on those located in earthquake zones such as California.
With Germany and Switzerland rethinking their nuclear plans, the White House sought to reassure Americans that the country’s 104 reactors in 31 states were safe.
Industry figures said nuclear plants on the quake-prone Pacific coast had been built to withstand major seismic events. One, near San Diego, is protected against huge waves by a nine-metre-high concrete wall.
But when pressed on whether US plants could survive an earthquake and tsunami of the scale inflicted on Japan, the chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, declined to speculate.
”Bottom line right now, we believe the plants in this country continue to be designed to a very high standard for seismic and tsunami-type events,” he said.
Congressman Ed Markey, the top Democrat on the House natural resources committee, called on the administration to impose a moratorium on nuclear plants in ”seismically questionable” parts of the country.
Several Democrats called for a halt to new plants pending a review of construction methods and safety. They noted the committee had recently voted to renew the operating licence of a Vermont plant which, they said, was of similar design to the stricken Japanese reactors.
There seemed little chance of political consensus, with senior Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona, who is an advocate of nuclear energy, saying he had been ”very impressed” with Japan’s earthquake preparations.
In Australia, Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese said his party was likely to stick to its anti-nuclear policy despite a push for change at the ALP national conference.
Mr Albanese said yesterday he did not want to get into commentary about discussions within the ALP while Japan faced a worsening nuclear crisis. But the Transport Minister said Australia did not need nuclear energy given its abundance of renewable energy options.
Labor remained opposed to nuclear energy, he said, adding: ”I don’t see why that would change.”
Prior to the events in Japan, influential elements in the Labor Right had been agitating for a national conference debate on nuclear energy. Resources Minister Martin Ferguson has rejected the need for such a debate.
The Coalition has been divided in its public comments. Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop had to modify her line yesterday in the wake of comments from leader Tony Abbott that his party had no policy promoting nuclear energy.
Ms Bishop has advocated the cause of nuclear energy and yesterday she said the debate would continue. But she said the Coalition had no policy at this time to allow nuclear power stations in Australia.
Nationals senator Fiona Nash, however, continued to call for a measured debate, saying the issue should be considered ”thoughtfully and sensibly”.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a review of plans to continue operating 17 ageing nuclear power plants, some of which are due to run beyond 2030.
Switzerland, which has four nuclear plants with five functioning reactors, said it was suspending the regulatory process for three more nuclear power stations because safety remained the first priority.
In contrast, the head of Indonesia’s atomic agency has vowed to press ahead with plans to build the first nuclear plant in the seismically unstable nation.
The US has not commissioned a nuclear reactor for 15 years but has several on the drawing board: one is set for start-up in Tennessee in 2013, with two more being built in Georgia. Another 21 are under consideration, spurred by incentives introduced after 2005 and a decision by President Barack Obama last year to pledge billions of dollars in loan guarantees in a bid to push nuclear power as an alternative to carbon-emitting sources.