Nuclear power in the U.S.: So far, no one in Washington is abandoning support for nuclear power.

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March 14 2011 8:05 PM

Full Steam Ahead

So far, no one in Washington is abandoning support for nuclear power.

Nuclear power plant. Click image to expand.
A U.S. nuclear power plant

Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., represents Madison in the House. Her district leans to the left, and so does she. But on at least one issue she may be at odds with Madison's stereotypical constituency, which is to say aging bearded liberals who wear "No Nukes" T-shirts from the 1980s and until recently could be seen all over the State Capitol: She supports the building of new nuclear power plants.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

"I think that climate change poses such a significant challenge to us that we have to have all the tools on the table, and this is a very significant source of energy that doesn't release greenhouse gases into the environment," said Baldwin. She laughed. "It's a very cautious support, if you will."

In Japan, there is a race against time to stop meltdowns at reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. In Washington, no one wants to overreact. There is near unanimity on the idea that the United States needs to keep building those plants, as President Obama requested in his budget and as Republicans request every day.

"If we can learn any lessons from Japan's experience, sure," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at a press briefing. (He was answering the only question, of about 20, about Japan.) "But I believe nuclear power is part of this country's energy strategy and the president has said so."

This morning, when William Saletan sounded the alarm against "nuclear overreactors" who would use the Japanese crisis to stop new nuclear power, he was arguing with fewer people than it might have seemed. Greenpeace responded by "calling for the phase out of existing reactors around the world." The Sierra Club drew attention to American reactors that operated with the same design as Japan's. And … well, presumably there were some others. But the politicians cited as opponents of new nuclear plants were proposing a whole lot less than that. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., an environmentalist Democrat who was widely quoted calling for a "time out" on new reactors, explained what he meant in a Monday CNN interview.

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"I think we can build nuclear power plants potentially but only if safety features are built in mitigating against the disasters," said Markey. The reason to move to greener technology, he says, was really that those technologies don't put as much at risk if a disaster breaks them down. Plus, it wasn't him suggesting that the reactors needed a second look.

"Wall Street is what did in the nuclear industry after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl," he said. "It is Wall Street again today that is going to believe that nuclear power has become an increasingly risky financial investment."

On Monday, Baldwin explained that her old opposition to nuclear power was sparked by the May 1979 disaster at Three Mile Island, when a reactor partially failed and leaked radioactive gases into an area close to Harrisburg, Pa. "I was opposed predominantly because of the United States' inability to figure out the spent fuel questions," said Baldwin on Monday, "and the concern after Three Mile Island that the safety checks and balances were not adequate at that point in time."

But Americans were less panicked about Three Mile Island than most people remember. A few weeks after the disaster, the Washington Post conducted a national poll on new opinions of nuclear power and compared them to a 1976 Gallup Poll. In 1976, 34 percent of Americans had said it was "very important" to build more power plants, and 37 percent said it was "somewhat important." In the 1979 poll, conducted after weeks of news about the nuclear danger, 29 percent of people went with "very important," and 36 went with "somewhat." Thirteen million curies of radioactive gas had driven the polling numbers down by only six points.

There would be more polls conducted in 1979 and 1980. They would find that Americans worried more about living near nuclear power plants than about the plants' existence, and more worried about America succumbing to an energy crisis than America running on uranium.

Those numbers have moved back and forth in 30-odd years, but support for new nuclear reactors has generally gotten higher. It's stayed high as the pro-nuke ranks were swelled by liberals, who, like Baldwin, are more worried about climate change than about the risk of freak accidents. On Monday, Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones noticed that Obama had praised Japan, specifically, for the "safe and effective way" it uses nuclear power. It's ironic, but it's not surprising—the battle over nuclear power, at this point, is really only about where waste is stored and how it's regulated.

On Monday, the absolute lack of debate about this got played out by a classic Capitol Hill tradition: Rep. Henry Waxman calling for an investigation. At the House energy and commerce committee's mark-up hearing (it was forwarding bills on net neutrality and the EPA on to the House), Democratic staff passed out a letter Waxman had sent Republicans demanding hearings on nuclear safety. "The nuclear industry has … asserted that it is far better prepared to respond to a nuclear accident than the oil industry was in responding to the blowout of BP's Macondo well," Waxman wrote, irony dripping off the page.

Rep. Fred Upton, the committee's new chairman—and a Republican who makes war daily with Democrats on energy issues—wrapped up the hearing quickly and started to walk out. A reporter grabbed his attention to ask if he'd hear out Waxman.

"Oh, I haven't seen that letter," shrugged Upton. "But we've got the Nuclear Regulatory Commission coming in on Wednesday!" With very little to debate, the GOP was already granting the wish.

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