Delegation remains cautiously bullish on nuclear power

WASHINGTON–Despite the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan, Connecticut’s congressional delegation expressed continued support for nuclear power, even as they called for more scrutiny of the industry.

Lawmakers walked a careful line between raising questions about how to improve the safety of U.S. nuclear reactors and voicing confidence in the long-term viability of an energy source that is a vital part of Connecticut’s power supply.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission a series of questions about the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants, including whether operations at plants built before 1980 should be temporarily suspended.

Blumenthal’s inquiry came as Connecticut’s senior senator, Joseph Lieberman, pulled back from comments he made over the weekend, in which he suggested that U.S. regulators should “put the brakes” on construction of new nuclear power plants until the ramifications of explosions at Japan’s nuclear plants became more clear.

“I don’t favor a moratorium. I don’t know enough now to favor a moratorium,” Lieberman said Tuesday. The Connecticut independent also said he would not support a temporary halt to issuing new permits for nuclear power plants.

A leading congressional proponent of a comprehensive U.S. energy policy, Lieberman said that since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the U.S. has been building much safer nuclear power plants.

“But we have to see whether, based on this experience, we have to go one level higher,” he said. “We would be irresponsible if we didn’t just step back for a moment and see if there are any lessons for us to learn from what’s happened in this disaster in Japan.”

Asked what that would mean in practice, he recalibrated his comments over the weekend on “Face the Nation,” which were interpreted as supporting a moratorium on new construction. “Really I’m asking that, in the first instance, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission follow this very carefully and then report to the public and to us in Congress about whether they think the current requirements for nuclear power plant construction in the U.S. should be altered in any way based on what we’ve learned in Japan,” he said.

Similarly, Blumenthal and other members of the Connecticut delegation said it was premature to call for a moratorium.

Connecticut has only one nuclear power facility–the Millstone Power Station in Waterford–but it generates as much as 60 percent of the state’s power, according to Ken Holt, a spokesman for Dominion, which owns and operates the plant.

There are no current plans to expand that facility. The state Department of Environmental Protection recently renewed Millstone’s license for its two reactors, after a years-long effort and significant new investments to mitigate, among other things, the facility’s impact on Long Island Sound.

Rep. Joe Courtney, a Democrat whose district includes Millstone, said that despite nuclear power’s recent political renaissance, the industry still faces huge financial hurdles to getting new plants up and running.

“There’s really so little that’s on the brink of becoming a financial reality,” Courtney said. “We’ve got plenty of time to assess what happened in Japan.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, a Washington industry group, said there are currently 20 applications pending before the NRC for new reactor licenses. But even if approved, construction is not imminent for any of those.

“At the front of the pack,” said Steve Kerekes, an NEI spokesman, are applications for new reactors in Georgia and South Carolina. But at the earliest, he said, “you’re looking at the first new reactors coming in the 2016 -2017 timeframe.”

Of the 20 pending applications, there could be “maybe 8 new reactors built by 2020,” Kerekes said. “So that’s not a very rapid expansion rate… We don’t see any reason to change the current pace, which has been pushed out a bit by the economic recession and low natural gas prices anyway.”

The NEI has dispatched lobbyists to Capitol Hill in recent days to answer questions from lawmakers and their staffs, along with hosting media calls and making other efforts to respond to the rapidly-evolving situation in Japan.

Among the Connecticut delegation, support for the nuclear power industry is strong. Lieberman and others have said it’s a critical element of any long-term effort to solve the nation’s energy problems. That said, they agree the situation in Japan should prompt some increased scrutiny of the industry.

“We have 104 nuclear power plants in the country, and for that reason we should be looking at this thing with a microscope and assessing seismic proximity and … whether these cooling systems have enough back-up systems,” said Courtney.

Blumenthal, in a letter Tuesday to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, noted that in the aftermath the explosions at one of Japan’s nuclear facilities, the German government announced it would temporarily suspend operations at nuclear plants built prior to 1980, pending a safety review. “Has the NRC contemplated steps along the same lines for any American nuclear plants?” he asked federal regulators.

More broadly, he also asked whether there were policies or design features that could be implemented here to protect public health and safety against a similar natural disaster.

Holt, the Dominion spokesman, said there’s little concern about an earthquake or a tsunami affecting the Connecticut plant. But those potential natural disasters and others, such as a hurricane, were taken into account when the facility was built.

Still, he said, “I think it’s wise to watch the events in Japan, take the lessons that we can out of it and make whatever improvements we can to improve the safety and security of our stations. I think the nuclear industry as a whole has a strong track record…  And just as we learned from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, we will also learn and improve our performance through this event.”

Blumenthal and others said their main concern about Millstone is not the reactors in operation, but the spent fuel stored on site.

“I have the same concerns about Millstone that I have about our entire nuclear energy supply,” said Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District. “We need to figure out a better way to store spent fuel. It simply does not make sense to have a completely decentralized system of spent fuel storage.”

That centralized place was supposed to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. But the Senate’s majority leader, Harry Reid, among others, has long opposed moving the nation’s nuclear waste to his home state.

“I’ve become pretty despondent about whether that’s ever going to move forward,” said Courtney. “Over Harry Reid’s dead body–that’s been the problem.”

He said President Barack Obama has called for a new commission to look at reprocessing spent fuel, which is how Europe handles much of its nuclear waste. “There’s a lot of people in the scientific community who feel that’s something we should revisit,” Courtney said. “That should hopefully get some momentum from this.”

How this current crisis impacts efforts in Congress to craft a broad, long-term energy policy remains an open question. Nuclear power has been considered a key element of that effort, a way to wean the U.S. off foreign oil, polluting coal, and other problematic energy sources.

“We need an energy policy for about a million reasons right now,” said Courtney, referring to, among other things, the instability in the Middle East. “And certainly this just becomes an additional piece that we’ve got to think through.”

Lieberman, who tried unsuccessfully to push a climate change bill through the last Congress, said the prospects this year for a comprehensive energy bill remain cloudy. And it’s too early to say whether the new questions about nuclear power will darken the skies.

“Right now, people are taking baby steps,” he said. He said he hopes support for nuclear power, as a part of a long-term energy solution for U.S. energy concerns, “only erode if there’s good reason… not as part of a panic reaction.”

If it becomes “politically less doable,” he said, “then we would have to make up that energy independence deficit with other home-grown fuels and conservation and alternative energy.”

It’s too early, he said, to come to any conclusions about that. “But it’s not too early to say it would be irresponsible to wait a while and see if there are any lessons that Japan’s tragedy offers us about how to make sure nuclear power plants in our county are safe.”