Lieberman: "Put the brakes" on new nuke plants

The Exelon Byron Nuclear Generating Stations running at full capacity 12 May 2007 in Byron, Illinois, is one of 17 nuclear reactors at 10 sites in three US states, is the nation's largest operator of commercial nuclear power plants and third largest in the world. In the US, nuclear operators have focused on improving safety and efficiency at existing plants. There have been no notable US accidents since 1979 at Three Mile Island and the US reactor fleet has produced at about 90 percent of licensed capacity since 2001, up from efficiency figures of the early 1980s. Nuclear plants today produce about 20 percent of the electricity used in the US. Dozens of electrical company�s are seeking licenses for as many as 31 new nuclear power reactors in the US.

Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman on Sunday called for a temporary moratorium on the construction of nuclear power plants in the U.S. in the aftermath of Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami, which damaged two reactors at a nuclear facility in the country's northeast.

"The reality is that we're watching something unfold," he said in an interview for CBS' "Face the Nation." "We don't know where it's going with regard to the nuclear power plants in Japan right now. I think it calls on us here in the U.S. - naturally not to stop building nuclear power plants, but to put the brakes on right now until we understand the ramifications of what's happened in Japan."

Japan, which was ravaged by an 8.9 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami last week, is now struggling with a growing nuclear crisis as a partial meltdown is already likely under way at one nuclear reactor, and operators are frantically trying to prevent the disaster from growing worse.

Noting that while in recent years the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had enacted upgraded emergency contingency plans for nuclear power plants in the event of a natural disaster, Lieberman said the situation in Japan could be instructive in preventing future crises.

"We've got 104 nuclear power plants in America now. I was informed this morning that about 23 of them are built according to designs that are similar to the nuclear power plants in Japan that are now the focus of our concern," he told CBS News' Bob Schieffer.

"I've been a big supporter of nuclear power because it's domestic, it's ours and it's clean," Lieberman said. "We've had a good safety with nuclear power plants here in the United States... I don't want to stop the building of nuclear power plants, but I think we've got to kind of quietly, quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake and the tsunami and then see what more, if anything, we can demand of the new power plants that are coming online."

"What this horrific natural disaster in Japan has to do for all of us is to go back and...look at our preparedness for such a catastrophe," he said.

Nils J. Diaz, a nuclear engineer who led the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 2003 to 2006, told the New York Times that safety programs for nuclear power plants developed in the wake of 9/11 would have prevented the serial problems experienced by the reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex.

Lieberman also called for U.S. states to start re-evaluating their building codes in light of the recent tragedy.

"It's time I think for states to look at their building codes and see whether they want to take preventive action," he said, noting that while newly-constructed buildings are often equipped with earthquake resistant systems, "a lot of the old buildings have not been retrofitted."

Lieberman urged Americans to increase their preparedness for natural disasters.

"One of the things [FEMA's Craig Fugate] said that he worries about is that the individual American people are not ready for what to do," he said. "The government is ready - about as ready as we can be. But what to do in the case of a disaster - go to the FEMA website because if you live, particularly near the coast, you've got to have an evacuation plan. You've got to have emergency supplies. So you'll be safe to respond to a disaster."