Democratic senators sounded the alarm Wednesday on U.S. nuclear power plants, saying safety issues must be reviewed in light of the reactor disaster unfolding in Japan.
"We've got an inferno in front of us and we have to make sure that we do whatever we can to stop it," Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.
Lautenberg's comment was directed at Gregory Jaczko, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who told the panel that "we want to get good facts" regarding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, which is threatened by reactor core meltdowns following last week's 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunamis. Once those facts are known, Jaczko said, the commission will make "good, credible, reliable decisions" -- but, he warned "that may take a bit of time."
That didn't placate Sen. Barbara Boxer, the panel's chairwoman whose state, California, is earthquake prone and home to several nuclear power plants proximate to geological fault lines. "I don't hear anything proactive, and I worry about that," she said, according to the Hill's report
on the hearing.
Despite the crisis in Japan, the Obama administration believes nuclear power must be a key part of U.S. energy policy. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said on Capitol Hill this week that new nuclear plants are much needed, the Washington Post reported
. President Obama's 2012 budget calls for $36 billion in loan guarantees as seed money for such endeavors.
Also at Wednesday's Senate hearing, Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists warned
that the U.S. nuclear regulatory system "is not clearly superior to that of the Japanese. We have had extreme weather events that exceeded our expectations and defeated our emergency planning measures (Katrina)."
He noted that his organization is "neither pro nor anti-nuclear power, but has served as a nuclear power safety and security watchdog for over 40 years." As such, he told the senators that "it is incumbent on you to thoroughly investigate whether the risk of an American Fukushima is really as low as the NRC and the industry claim. . . . It is not premature to immediately take steps to reduce vulnerabilities that have long been known by regulators but have not been addressed."
A new poll
from USA Today/Gallup shows 70 percent of those surveyed now have a greater concern about the chances of a U.S. nuclear disaster occurring than they did before the situation in Japan; 39 percent of respondents are "a lot more concerned."