Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fukushima presents Barack Obama with crossroads on nuclear

Discussion of the Clean Energy Standard reaches the Senate this week. Senator Jeff Bingaman Bingaman, chairman of the senate energy and natural resources committee, and Alaska's second most notorious Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski, issued a "white paper" yesterday seeking comment from the public on the CES and which energy sources should qualify as clean energy after Japan's nuclear crisis.

President Barack Obama included nuclear energy in January's state of the union address, with a goal of 80% of US electricity to be generated by clean energy sources.

But the world is a different place now, after the 9.0 earthquake in Japan that led to the devastating tsunami and the nuclear crisis at Fukushima.

Californians were reminded last weekend of their vulnerability to natural disasters, and their unnatural consequences, even from 5,000 miles away as a radioactive plume from the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan made its way across the Pacific.

Thunder clouds gathered ominously on the west coast, and dumped heavy rain to the Bay Area, whipped up a tornado to Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, and a waterspout off Ocean Beach to the south of the city.

Stormy weather isn't unusual here, but the radioactive cocktail it carried this time scared Californians into flash purchases of potassium iodide and even kelp to ward off radioactive poisoning.

Scientists at UC Berkeley detected radioactive particles from 5,000 miles across the ocean, but said that levels were miniscule:
"We see evidence of fission particles - iodine, cesium, barium and krypton, a whole dog's breakfast of radiation," said Ed Morse, professor of nuclear engineering at UC-Berkeley.

Californians may have been assured that there was no threat to health this time. But this hasn't damped fears over the 104 nuclear reactors in the US and the waste from them. More than 108 million Americans, including almost 8 million Californians, live within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant.

But reassurance was slow to come from President Barack Obama who drew criticism last week for being slow to respond to the Japan crisis and reassure the American public that the 104 reactors on US soil were safe. Maybe he doesn't want to make promises he can't keep.

Tsunami warning signs still line the 101 highway, which runs along the Pacific coast to Oregon where visitors are also warned of “sneaker waves” at otherwise benign looking beaches. On Friday, 100 miles of that coastline from Eureka to Crescent City, which I drove along on a road-trip to the ancient redwoods last autumn, were closed to traffic.

Europe was quick to review plans to build more nuclear power stations as Japan struggled to control apocalyptic explosions at Fukushima. But perhaps President Obama finds himself at a crossroads on nuclear - by stressing the hazards of nuclear in Japan, it will be more difficult for him to endorse the technology as a clean energy solution at home.

Damage has already been done to the anticipated 'renaissance' in nuclear, while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission reviews 20 licence applications from nuclear companies with $36bn in loan guarantees to construct new facilities. Before he took office, President Obama described the NRC as "a moribund … captive of the industries that it regulates".

But this is not a rift between corporate interests and the public that President Obama should repair.

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