Japan’s Nuclear Crisis Causing Concern Among State Governments About U.S. Nuclear Future

State officials are weighing in on the future of nuclear power in the United States as Japan struggles to control its nuclear reactors in the wake of last week’s massive earthquake in that country. Despite an increasing need to find energy alternatives here at home, some believe the Japan crisis may make additional delays in the construction of new nuclear reactors or relicensing of old ones in this country a possibility. Here’s a rundown of media reports on how the nuclear power issue is being raised in various state capitals.

  • California: A letter from a group of ten state lawmakers to the U.S. Department of Energy prefigured the current Japan crisis by two weeks but has received increased attention in recent days, including in an article on O.C. Watchdog, The Orange County Register’s investigative journalism website. The letter, dated February 25th, warned federal officials that two nuclear power plants in the state (San Onofre in San Clemente and Diablo Canyon in Avila Beach) are vulnerable to earthquakes. Licenses for facilities at the two plants will be up for renewal by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the next decade. Half of the 104 reactors in the country are over 30 years old and the remaining ones are at least 20 years old. Most of the country’s reactors, which were originally granted licenses to operate for 40 years, have applied for a 20-year extension. Sixty-two extensions have been granted so far, with 20 still pending. The California lawmakers write “it is our hope that the unique issues surrounding nuclear power and waste storage and disposal in seismically-active California are considered” in the renewal process. They point to the discovery in 2008 of a previously unknown fault running directly underneath Diablo Canyon: “This new fault represents the second active fault in the immediate vicinity of the plant. The characteristics of the new fault, as well as its relationship to the first fault, are largely unknown as detailed seismic studies have yet to be completed.” One of the lawmakers who signed the letter was state Sen. Sam Blakeslee, who happens to be a geophysicist with a doctorate in earthquake studies. As the Japan crisis unfolded, Blakeslee further emphasized the themes of the letter in a statement. “The devastating events in Japan underscore the importance of addressing the seismic uncertainty surrounding California’s nuclear power plants,” he wrote. “We need independent, third-party studies to determine the true risk presented by these large, dangerous faults in such close proximity to California’s aging reactors.” The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday on efforts by the operators of San Onofre and Diablo Canyon to reassure Californians that a nuclear crisis on the scale of Japan’s is unlikely to occur in the state.
  • The Daily Beast today offers a list of the “Most Vulnerable U.S. Nuclear Plants.” The article rates the vulnerability of all 65 U.S. nuclear facilities based on safety records, potential disasters and nearby populations. The top ten includes California’s San Onofre and Diablo Canyon. The other top vulnerable facilities are spread across the country, with two in Pennsylvania and Tennessee and one each in Illinois, New Jersey, New York and South Carolina.
  • The New York Times reported Sunday that of the 104 reactors licensed to operate in 31 states, 31 of them are G.E. boiling water reactors of the “Mark 1” or “Mark 2” design used at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.
  • Maryland: Majority owners of the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Lusby, Maryland met with Gov. Martin O’Malley just last week to discuss state assistance in financing the $10 billion proposed development of a third reactor. In the wake of the Japan crisis, at least one state legislator was cautioning against an overreaction to the incident that could prompt a re-evaluation of the Calvert Cliffs project. State House Minority Leader Anthony J. O’Donnell represents the legislative district that includes Calvert Cliffs. He told The (Gaithersburg) Gazette this week: “The crisis in Japan is still occurring, so let’s let the crisis be brought under control and be stabilized and then be appropriately evaluated before we rush to judgment.”
  • Iowa: Legislators are considering two bills, House File 561 and Senate File 390, aimed at making it easier to expand nuclear generation in the state. The Des Moines Register and The Quad City Times reported this week that some lawmakers are suggesting that the legislation now be delayed. “This is a time for us to pause and ask the right questions about what types of risks we’re willing to undertake to pursue this,” said Sen. Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines. “Right now people are looking at (Japan) saying ‘Oh, my God, I don’t want this to be Iowa.’” Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City added that he wants Iowa to take a “go-slow” approach to nuclear expansion and would support a temporary halt in building new nuclear power plants as some in Congress have called for. “Clearly, what’s happened in Japan gives people pause for the safety and, frankly, the liability for who is going to pay when there are problems,” Bolkcom said. But Radio Iowa reported Monday that Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said she hopes the Japan crisis does not slow the process of building a new nuclear plant in the state (MidAmerican Energy officials have said they could make a proposal for a new plant by the end of the year). “They don’t happen overnight,” Reynolds said. “It’s a seven to eight year process in order to move towards nuclear production, but I think we need to continue to look at all alternative fuels and that’s one of them.” A Senate Subcommittee is expected to discuss the proposed legislation Thursday.  Sen. Swati Dandekar, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee and lives near the existing Duane Arnold Nuclear Plant in Palo, said: “We have to be cautious and do what’s right for our citizens in protecting them. We’ll make sure that all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed.”
  • Texas: Some in the Lone Star State are predicting that the Fukushima nuclear disaster will delay indefinitely a planned expansion of the South Texas Nuclear Project near Houston. But it may have little to do with concerns about seismic activity or nuclear safety in Texas. As The Houston Chronicle reported Monday, Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the Fukushima plant, was expected to invest in the expansion if the project was awarded a federal loan guarantee. The utility NRG Energy had also previously said it would rely on loan guarantees from the Japanese government to build the new reactors. Both seem unlikely to happen in the wake of the disaster in Japan. Meanwhile, Dallas-based Luminant Power announced they still plan to move forward with building two new reactors in the next decade at the Comanche Peak plant in Glen Rose, KXXV-TV reported.
  • Illinois: While Illinois has more nuclear reactors than any state, it also has one of the oldest moratoriums on building additional nuclear power plants (nearly 25 years). State Rep. JoAnn Osmond, a Republican from Antioch, has sponsored legislation that would lift the 1987 ban.  But The (Springfield) State Journal-Register reports that Osmond said Monday the effort is on indefinite hold following the events in Japan. Osmond said concerns over the issue of nuclear-waste storage had made her inclined to leave the bill in committee this year, even before the Fukushima crisis occurred. Osmond has tried four times previously to pass legislation lifting the moratorium. The Chicago Tribune reports that Exelon Nuclear had long before the events in Japan backed off plans to build new reactors in Illinois, saying they are not economical. The company, which owns a fifth of the nation’s atomic capacity, will instead spend $3.6 billion to boost the power generated by its existing fleet. But critics note that some problems have resulted from previous attempts to squeeze more electricity out of existing nuclear plants.
  • Minnesota: Legislation to repeal Minnesota’s ban on new nuclear power plants appears to have stalled as well, the Associated Press reports. But the bill’s Republican sponsors are blaming the slowdown not on the events in Japan but on Gov. Mark Dayton’s demands for the legislation. The governor has said he wants the bill to include, among other things, a plan for storing new nuclear waste.
  • Wisconsin: No legislation exists yet to overturn the moratorium on new reactors in Wisconsin, in place since 1983, but state Rep. Mark Honadel, a Republican, told The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel this week he still plans to co-sponsor a bill this year to do that.  Honadel said lifting the moratorium isn’t a sign the state would start building reactors overnight. “It simply opens the door to the nuclear debate,” he said. But other lawmakers believe it may not be the right time to lift the moratorium. “There is too much uncertainty with regards to the public’s safety when there are unexpected events that take place as we are seeing currently in Japan,” said Milwaukee Rep. Josh Zepnick, a Democrat. “Nuclear energy has some safety questions that need to be answered and some risk that I don’t think we need to be taking right now, especially with our current reserve capacity in Wisconsin,” said Rep. Brett Hulsey, a Madison Democrat.
  • Alaska: Gwen Holdmann of the University of Alaska Fairbanks told the state legislature last month that a tentative plan to bring nuclear power to the state would not involve large nuclear reactors on the scale of those in Japan. What is under consideration in Alaska is a smaller, innovative modular design, Holdmann said this week, according to The Juneau Empire. State Rep. Craig Johnson in 2010 successfully pushed to include nuclear power in the state’s energy plan. But other legislators don’t think even the smaller reactor concept is likely to fly in the state. “I just don’t think we’ve got the customer base to make it cost effective,” said Rep. Pete Peterson of Anchorage.
  • Colorado: Although it has no nuclear reactors of its own, Colorado could feel the impact of any slowdown in the push for more nuclear power.The Colorado Independent reported Monday on how the state’s historic role as “a hotbed of uranium production” could be in jeopardy. The state has also slowly been ramping back up its uranium milling and mining operations to meet the spike in demand anticipated to come as the U.S. tries to move toward cleaner energy options. The Casper Star Tribune meanwhile reported that representatives of Wyoming’s uranium industry say Japan’s struggles should have little long-term effect on mining in that state. And The Rapid City Journal reports that South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard has signed legislation to suspend some state regulations that would apply to a company proposing a uranium mining operation in the southwestern part of his state.