The events in Japan as they relate to issues of nuclear energy have been an urgent and important clarion call to all regarding the safety of our nuclear facilities and the role nuclear energy will play in our energy future. It is an issue of vital importance to the nation given its impact on global warming, national security and the economy. It is an issue that needs be examined openly and not simply left to those who are pre-programmed to present us with the familiar saws railing against nuclear energy with the tailwind of current events at their back.
Almost the first out-of-the-box of nuclear energy dismissal was Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) who on March 13, but two days after the tsunami hit Japan, set forth a list of nuclear policy objectives ranging from a call to imposing a moratorium on siting new reactors to requiring a review of the U.S. Department of Energy's loan guarantee program, without which the construction of new facilities would be brought to a screeching halt. All points certainly to be put on the table, but Markey's haste to be out front bespeaks where he is coming from. His views were more succinctly enunciated but a week later on March 20th speaking to 'Face the Nation', he was quoted: "the nuclear industry as an electrical-generating part of our mix for the future" would likely "meet its maker" in light of the recent tragedy in Japan. Coming from the ranking member of the house Energy and Commerce Committee one can well imagine what lies ahead.
Then we have Mr. Gregory Jaczko, head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission testifying before the Energy and Commerce Committee about the nuclear situation in Japan. His testimony was broadcast around the world and fueled growing criticism of Japan's government handling of events while frightening all who were paying attention. The New York Times would banner headline its first page on March 17, "U.S. Sees 'Extremely High' Radiation Level at Plant, Focusing on Spent Fuels Impact" and went on to write "More Dire Appraisal of Crisis Creates Split With Japan." In these situations perhaps it is best to err on the side of caution. Yet in the retrospect of now twelve days since Jaczko's testimony, it would appear the Japanese assessment was closer to the mark. Interestingly Gregory Jaczko worked as a Congressional Science Fellow on Representative Markey's staff. Jaczko also seved as Senator Harry Reid's science policy advisor. And therein lies the rub.
Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev), probably more than anyone in public office has slowed down to a virtual halt the expansion of nuclear power in the United States (not a single nuclear power plant has been built here since the late 1970's) by forcing the shutdown of the multi-billion Yucca Mountain, Nevada repository project for nuclear waste. In doing so he enormously complicated the siting of new plants and the safe handling of spent fuels, an issue now again in laser-like focus in response to the Japanese disaster.
Without a program to effectively deal with nuclear waste, pools holding spent fuels at nuclear plants in the United States are even more heavily loaded than those at the Japanese reactors. Yet no plan has emerged to replace the Yucca Mountain repository, (NYTimes: "Japan Nuclear Crisis Reviving Long U.S. Fight On Spent Fuel" 03.24.11).
Certainly at Harry Reid's insistence, President Obama told his Department of Energy to withdraw their application for the construction license for Yucca Mountain facility that was submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). When the Energy Department sought withdrawal of their license application last June, a panel of three administrative law judges maintained there was no provision in law to do so and rejected the NRC's request to withdraw.
The issue was automatically appealed to the full five member NRC . With one commissioner having recused himself the NRC voted 2-to-2 leaving the commission deadlocked thereby failing to override the panel of judges ruling. Thus the administrative judges' ruling was left to stand. However Commission Chairman Jaczko has refused to bring the matter to a final vote, continuing to leave the issue unsettled, much to the consternation of many in Congress, not to speak of the utility industry and raising the question altogether, to whose benefit?
Solution to the waste disposal problem has been under endless examination. Some years ago this writer proposed, at risk of being pilloried, siting such a facility in northern Alaska much in keeping with the effectively resolved Russian depots on the Novaya Zemlya archipelago in the Northern Arkhangelsk region (please see "Nuclear Waste: 'Not in My Backyard!' Then Whose?" 07.07.06)
Another crucial initiative that could play a major role and has in many national nuclear programs such as that of France as but one example, is the reprocessing of spent fuel to recover plutonium produced in uranium powered reactors for reuse as reactor fuel. It is an issue that has been off the table in the U.S. since the 70's when Jimmy Carter banned the process because of proliferation concerns (please see "Climate Change and Nuclear Energy: America's Missed Opportunity", 12.13.09).
Certainly the benefits and risks inherent in a nuclear energy program are enormous. It is important for the nation's future when all is said and done, in spite of the current reaction to events in Japan, that the benefits attributable to nuclear energy are given temperate and fair consideration in all policy assessments.