Senators probe nuclear future in wake of Japan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senators on Tuesday pressed the country’s top nuclear regulator about lessons that can be learned from Japan’s nuclear disaster, especially at two nuclear plants in earthquake-prone California.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) is ceremonially sworn in at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, January 5, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Senator Barbara Boxer of California, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, pressed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do extra inspections in her state.

Boxer, a Democrat, conceded at a hearing that it was unlikely her state will experience a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami like the one that damaged Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant last month. Still, she said regulators and lawmakers must ensure nuclear plants can withstand worst-case scenarios.

“It’s unlikely -- that’s exactly what they said about Japan -- to the word,” said Boxer.

“It’s eerie to me because I don’t sense enough humility from all of us,” Boxer said.


Japan’s nuclear crisis appears to be “static” but not yet stable as the damaged reactors and spent fuel pools still need to be cooled, the head of the U.S. nuclear safety regulator told the hearing.

“The efforts continue to ... transition from static to stable to ensure long-term ultimate ability to cool the reactors and to provide cooling to the spent fuel pools,” said Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Jaczko told reporters it was “not surprising” that Japan’s nuclear regulator raised the severity of the Fukushima disaster to a level 7 from 5.

“I don’t think there was anything surprising in that decision. It’s been clear that this is a very serious incident

and I think people have been responding appropriately,” Jaczko said.

The NRC is reviewing the crisis to see whether changes are needed to protect against an accident at any of the 104 operating nuclear reactors in the United States. The first stage of the review is slated to be complete in July.


Nuclear power had been gaining favor in the United States as an energy source low in greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear power plants produce about 20 percent of U.S. electricity, but account for about 70 percent of clean energy, noted Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee.

“I can’t imagine a future for the United States that doesn’t include nuclear power to create electricity,” Alexander said.

James Inhofe, the panel’s top Republican, said all energy production has some level of risk which must be managed.

“We can’t be complacent with regard to nuclear safety. Even so, we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear,” he said.

Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Dale Hudson