Can Japan crisis unplug U.S. nuclear energy?

South Texas Project nuclear power plant
Fields of blowing grass front the South Texas Project nuclear power plant Thursday, Oct. 8, 2009 near Bay City, Texas.
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

The crisis in Japan has revived the old questions about nuclear energy, including the ultimate one: Do the risks mean atomic power should be UNPLUGGED? Martha Teichner now with our Sunday Morning cover story ...

Right now, the South Texas Project, as this nuclear power plant southwest of Houston is called, produces nearly 8% of the electricity used in Texas.

Until ten days ago, it looked as if NRG, the New Jersey company that owns it, was on track to start building two new reactors here, creating 8,000 jobs and enough power to light two million homes.

Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the reactors in Japan, was planning to invest 20% of the anticipated $14 billion total cost.

Then Fukushima happened.

"It's not necessarily a fatal setback, but it's a substantial setback," said David Crane, the CEO of NRG.

"If you ask me, can I give you assurance that this plant will be built, it very much depends on what's going to happen [in Japan], what's the reaction going to be once this event is over and people are assessing the implications."

The implications here of what's happened in Japan? The future of the U.S. nuclear industry is suddenly no longer quite as certain as it seemed.

Just a year ago, in March 2010, a Gallup poll found that 62% of Americans were in favor of nuclear energy. But in the latest Gallup poll, conducted after the Fukushima crisis began, only 44% favored building new reactors in the U.S.

Asked whether events in Japan have made them more concerned about a nuclear disaster happening here, 7 out of ten said yes.

"When you have an accident that is not likely to happen but when it does it can be disastrous, you need to redouble your efforts to safeguard against it," said Bob Deans, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

"What this calls for is a reassessment of what we have regarded as safe in this country," Dean ssaid. "We can't sit back and be complacent and say, 'Well, we're not them.' No, we are."

The United States gets 20% of its electricity from nuclear power. There are 104 commercial reactors operating in the U.S.; twenty-three of them are the aging GE Mark 1 type used at Fukushima. Four reactors are near seismic fault lines in California alone, although the industry insists us those plants have been made safer than Japan's.

"We would not have a japan," said Marvin Fertel, who heads the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's lobbying organization. "We had a Three Mile Island. and it was a terrible situation. We melted half the core.

"The actions taken by the industry since Three Mile Island have prepared us to deal with events just like Japan and maybe worse."

Three Mile Island in 1979 was our Fukushima. Although no one was killed or even injured in the accident at the plant in Pennsylvania, with the partial meltdown of the reactor's core came a total meltdown in trust for nuclear power it took more than 30 years to rebuild.

"We have short attention spans," said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program for the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. "And as bad memories of Three Mile Island and cost overruns fade in the rearview mirror, we forget about it.

"What Japan has done is it's very rudely reminded us that nuclear power's not safe, it's not clean, that it is not risk-free," Slocum said.

For that matter, neither is coal, which supplies nearly half our electricity. Remember the explosion last April at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia? Twenty-nine miners died.

And who can forget the BP oil spill? BP estimates its cost at $40 billion or more. And what about the cost to the environment?

Critics still say nuclear is different.

"In the United States, even assuming that a nuclear plant is built as well as it can be, we have not solved the waste issue," said Slocum. "So there are enormous environmental challenges present with nuclear that just are not there with competing energy sources."

But for more than three decades, the U.S. nuclear industry has not had a serious accident, and that helped to convince Republicans and Democrats to revisit nuclear power.

On the very day of Japan's earthquake, President Obama reiterated his support.

"By 2035, 80% of our electricity will come from a broad array of clean energy sources, from renewables like wind and solar and homegrown biofuels, along with natural gas, clean coal, and nuclear power," he said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not approved a single application to build a new reactor in this country, since Three Mile Island. But now, it's reviewing applications for 20 reactors, with four close to approval.

"Is it possible for renewable energy and greater efficiency to take the place of nuclear power ultimately?" asked Teichner.

"Ultimately, on a national level, it's possible. Is it likely? No. Is it going to happen in my lifetime? No," said NRG's David Crane.

"Our one nuclear plant in Texas, it produces more electricity in one year than the entire wind and solar generation in this country in the last decade combined," he said. "We don't build nuclear plants because they're fun. We don't build nuclear plants because they're easy. We build nuclear plants because we need the power."

Perhaps because our appetite for electricity is insatiable.