Rep. Ed Markey says the U.S. should reconsider any plans for nuclear power plants in areas prone to earthquakes. STORY HIGHLIGHTS
- Massachusetts congressman calls for review of planned nuclear plants
- In response, a nuclear energy advocate says U.S. plants are safe
- Problems in Japan are causing some nuclear power proponents to reconsider
- President Obama has said nuclear power is part of the U.S. energy strategy
Washington (CNN) — Any plans to build a nuclear power plant in an area of the United States prone to earthquakes should be reconsidered in light of the damage to Japanese reactors by last week’s earthquake and tsunami, Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts told CNN on Monday.
"We just have to call a time out and examine whether or not those safety features necessary in the future are built into new nuclear power plants in our country," said Markey, who sits on the House committee overseeing nuclear power.
"Any plant that is being considered for a seismically vulnerable area in the United States should be reconsidered right now," Markey said, adding that the Japanese earthquake registering 8.9 in magnitude was "a hundred times greater in intensity" than the level that U.S. plants are built to withstand.
He also called for ensuring that backup systems for U.S. nuclear plants include sufficient cooling fluids for shutting down reactors, and for the government to distribute radiation-blocking potassium iodide to people living within a 20-mile radius of a nuclear plant.
In response, Tony Pietrangelo of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the policy organization of the nuclear energy and technology industry, told CNN that U.S. plants are "designed to withstand the most severe seismic events or earthquakes, as well as tsunamis where applicable, and flooding."
"We have rules to deal with station blackout, which is what they are experiencing in Japan," Pietrangelo said, referring to power loss at nuclear plants that affected the function of backup response systems. it was the "one-two" punch of the earthquake and tsunami that caused the problem, as the Japanese reactors withstood the shaking without significant problem, he said.
U.S. plants, Pietrangelo said, "are designed for the seismic events in their area."
"the West Coast plants are designed to higher standards than the Central and Eastern United States," he said. "it is based on a historical look at what has happened in those areas, what soil or rock they sit in. they are very robust. I think, as we have seen in Japan, despite the magnitude of that earthquake, they hold up quite well."
To Markey, though, the problem is that "it’s impossible to totally predict all of the different kinds of events which can unfold in these types of circumstances."
"Let’s be honest," he added, "none of the experts can be 100% certain what magnitude of an earthquake that can hit."
On Sunday, a Senate proponent of nuclear energy also called for a temporary halt in building new nuclear power plants in the United States until the situation in Japan can be examined.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut who sits with the Democratic caucus, said on the CBS program "Face the Nation" that the United States should "put the brakes on right now until we understand the ramifications of what’s happening in Japan."
While noting he continues to support the development of nuclear power, Lieberman said more details are needed on the damage and resulting radiation leaks in Japan.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, another nuclear energy proponent, deferred from offering a final opinion in an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," but indicated no change in his thinking.
"I don’t think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy," McConnell said. Pressed again, he added: "We ought not to make American and domestic policy based upon an event that happened in Japan."
The United States has 104 non-military nuclear reactors operating at 65 plants across the country. in addition, there are dozens of reactors, weapons labs and other nuclear facilities associated with national defense.
Most of the civilian plants are located near major population centers. they currently supply about 20% of the nation’s power.
A new nuclear plant has not been commissioned since the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, although dozens that were under construction at the time have come on line.
More recently, increased electricity use, a desire to generate homegrown energy and concern over global warming have made carbon-free nuclear power more attractive.
The government has set aside $18 billion for new nuclear plants, and Obama wants to spend an additional $36 billion.
Federal regulators are reviewing 20 applications to build new nuclear plants, and several existing facilities have applied to extend their operating licenses.
Perhaps the most vulnerable U.S. plants are the two built on California’s Pacific coast near the San Andreas fault.
Those plants were built to withstand a magnitude 7.5 earthquake, said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear expert at the Institute for Policy studies and a former senior official at the U.S. Department of Energy.
The San Francisco quake of 1906 measured 8.3, said Alvarez, while Friday’s Japanese quake was a massive 8.9.
"I don’t think we should renew those operating licenses," he said.
Spokesmen for the utilities that own the California plants, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, said Sunday the plants are designed to meet the maximum quake projected for their immediate vicinity, which is not thought to exceed a magnitude of 6.5.
According to Pietrangelo of the Nuclear Energy Institute, every two years U.S. nuclear plants undergo emergency planning exercises run by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We are the gold standard of emergency planning, and other industries have learned from what we do on our stations," Pietrangelo said.
CNNMoney’s Steve Hargreaves and CNN’s Tom Cohen contributed to this story.
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