Image: Dr. Gregory B. Jaczko, Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, testifies about the nuclear situation in Japan on Capitol Hill
Brendan Hoffman  /  Getty Images
Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, testifies Wednesday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee about the nuclear plant emergency in Japan.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/17/2011 3:13:50 PM ET 2011-03-17T19:13:50

Worries about nuclear power plant safety reached Capitol Hill Wednesday as senators questioned the nation’s top nuclear regulator about whether his agency was doing enough to avert a  Fukushima-type disaster in the united States.

"I'm looking to you for more leadership than I've gotten," Senate Energy and Public Works Committee chairman Sen. Barbara Boxer told Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at a hearing of her committee.

She and her California colleague Sen. Dianne Feinstein are urging Jaczko to order an immediate inspection of the Diablo and San Onofre nuclear plants in their state.

"You're doing nothing new," Boxer complained to Jaczko. "I don't hear anything proactive. I worry about that."

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Senators want NRC report on U.S. nuclear plant safety

Jaczko, a former aide to Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, responded that his agency will conduct “a systematic and methodical review” of the events at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan and apply lessons learned to the safety of nuclear plants in the United States.

Boxer was impatient with his approach: "What we're asking is not for some major breakthrough of any sort , but just can we take another look, and put some teeth behind it, and put a timetable behind it and do these immediate inspections and not just say, ‘Oh, we're waiting to learn from Japan?'"

Fears for Californians living near San Onofre
Noting that the Obama administration has advised Americans in Japan to stay outside a 50-mile radius of the Fukushima site, Boxer said there are seven million people living within a 50-mile radius of the San Onofre plant near San Clemente, Calif.

She also warned “A tsunami could come with no warning.”

Video: Japan crisis causes the U.S. to reexamine energy policies (on this page)

For good measure she added, “This is a very large country, I just don’t get why we have so many plants on earthquake faults.”

Yet despite the concerns voiced by Boxer and others, it’s premature to forecast that that Congress will take steps to curtail the incentives and tax breaks the nuclear power industry in the United States has enjoyed for several decades — and especially since the enactment of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, for which President Barack Obama voted when he served in the Senate.

The principal federal support for nuclear power comes from:

  • A nuclear production tax credit.
  • Regulatory risk insurance to help the cost of delays in licensing which lead to construction cost overruns.
  • $853 million in requested funding in fiscal year 2012 for research and development on waste storage, safety and reactor technology.
  • Loan guarantees for most of the construction costs of new plants. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Wednesday that the Obama administration still wants to “jump-start the domestic nuclear industry” with up to $36 billion in loan guarantee authority in FY 2012.
  • A limit on legal liability, first enacted in 1954 and in effect through 2025, for owners of commercial reactors in case of accidents.

Lisa Epifani, a lawyer and lobbyist who served as Assistant Secretary of Energy for congressional affairs in the Bush administration and counsel to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said, “There are no indications right now that Congress is going to change course on any of these. It is very premature to speculate on how events in Japan are going to impact policy in the United States. The priority right now is helping the Japanese."

In last month's House-passed spending bill, which would have cut spending by $60 billion, the House made no changes in the authorization for $18.5 billion in nuclear loan guarantees.

“I think that shows a commitment by the House leadership and those who supported that bill for loan guarantees for nuclear,” said Epifani, even with the current congressional appetite for deficit reduction.

Of all the incentives for nuclear power, the R&D funding “might be the one that may have to fight the hardest to keep the dollars spent there” due to pressures for deficit reduction, she said.

The worry voiced by Boxer and other Democrats on her committee Wednesday was a sharp change from the tone in 2009 and 2010 when it seemed likely that Congress would enact legislation curbing greenhouse gas emissions, thus spurring new nuclear power plant building.

“The outlook for the U.S. nuclear power industry appears to have brightened after decades of uncertainty,” a Congressional Research Service report noted in late 2009.

A bright outlook for nuclear in 2010
The brighter outlook was partly due to the likelihood of legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Congress would force high greenhouse gas emitters such as coal-fired plants to give way to non-GHG sources such as nuclear, wind and solar.

“An exciting time for nuclear energy,” was how Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D- Minn., summed it up in a Feb. 9, 2010 confirmation hearing for two NRC appointees. “There is just so much interest all over this country.”

She noted that Obama had called for tripling the Department of Energy's Loan Guarantee Program for nuclear energy from $18 billion to $54 billion.

“We know that the rest of the world is moving to a low-carbon economy, and nuclear energy will be a major part of that,” Klobuchar said.

“This nuclear renaissance means America has an opportunity to lead the world in developing new technologies to deal with the problems at hand,” which she said included plant safety.

And she noted that in 2009 she’d visited Japan with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R- S.C., “We visited one of the nuclear facilities there, and I was able to see firsthand a lot of the advancements that have been made in other countries.”

She told the two nominees “you're coming in at a time where, for the first time, you see much more unity behind this idea of moving forward with nuclear.”

Rep. John Boehner, then the House GOP leader and now the House speaker, proposed legislation in 2009 that would have sped up NRC's licensing of new reactors, setting a goal of licensing 100 new reactors by 2030.

Now in the wake of the Japanese crisis, utilities have reason to be wary about investing in new nuclear plants. Overseas, China, the biggest builder of new reactors, said Wednesday it was suspending approval of new nuclear plants pending a safety review in the wake of the Fukushima crisis.

A big change from 2009
The high point for restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions that would have encouraged nuclear plant building came in 2009 when the House passed cap and trade legislation that would have in effect put a price on carbon.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., passed 219 to 212, mostly along party lines and was one of then Speaker Nancy Pelosi's highest priorities. The Senate never acted on the Waxman bill.

In his first month in office, Obama proposed a budget that assumed that sale of GHG permits would generate $645 billion in revenues over ten years. The prospect of that revenue now seems to have evaporated.

“A price on carbon would be beneficial to those who sell nuclear power because it would make their product more competitive since it has no GHGs,” Epifani explained. “Today it’s clear that Congress is not going to put a price on carbon in any near-term fashion. While a cap and trade bill could have made nuclear investment more attractive, there’s still good reason to want to invest in nuclear if you want clean energy and believe energy demand in this country is going to grow. And I certainly hope it will because that means a strong economy.”

But in a speech made three days before the Japanese earthquake and widely noted by environmentalists and energy industry observers, John Rowe, the chairman and chief executive officer of Exelon, the Chicago-based company which is the largest nuclear operator in the United States, said new nuclear plants would make no economic sense due to “abundant natural gas.”

He said, “As one who survived the nuclear cost overruns of the 80s, I am painfully aware that cheap gas will get you if you bet against it.”

New nuclear, solar and clean coal plants would cost about 45 percent more per megawatt hour than new natural gas plants, Rowe estimated. “Federal subsidies shift a portion of the costs from electric ratepayers to taxpayers, but do not change the overall economics,” he said.

“Some in Congress talk about doubling or tripling the size of the existing nuclear fleet to face our energy challenges. Since these plants are not currently economic at today’s low natural gas prices, the government would have to spend $300-600 billion to get these plants built,” he said — a compelling deterrent at a time congressional Republicans have made deficit reduction their highest goal.

Rowe also recommended that Congress not expand the nuclear loan guarantee program beyond the $18.5 billion already allocated and not extend tax credits for nuclear plants.

While Boxer and others in Congress focus on risks at existing plants, it is Rowe and other leaders in his industry, and probably not Congress, who'll decide if market forces stop new nuclear plants before they get started.

msnbc.com's Carrie Dann contributed to this story.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: U.S. warns, evacuates Americans in Japan

  1. Transcript of: U.S. warns, evacuates Americans in Japan

    SAVANNAH GUTHRIE, co-host: And as we mentioned earlier, the US government is urging Americans to stay at least 50 miles away from the Fukushima plant, and the State Department has now announced it will begin offering voluntary evacuation to family members of US personnel in Japan . Chuck Todd is NBC 's chief White House correspondent. Chuck, good morning.

    CHUCK TODD reporting: Good morning, Savannah . And that's going to affect about 600 families; also, those chartered flights will allow some private American citizens to get on if they can. All of this has to do with the fact that yesterday was a big turn in that the Obama administration and the American government clearly isn't trusting what's coming out of the Japanese government and is now taking upon itself to warn American citizens what to do in Japan . The US government has been very sensitive to the fact that thousands of Americans live and work in Japan and they're scared. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told NBC 's Andrea Mitchell the US government is following the developments minute by minute.

    Secretary of State HILLARY CLINTON: We're doing everything we can to assist American citizens because their health and safety is obviously our highest concern.

    TODD: On Wednesday concern over the troubled nuclear plant led the US government to issue its own recommendations for US citizens in Japan . Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko broke with his Japanese counterparts on how safe the area near the Fukushima plant is. The Japanese have so far said that people only need to evacuate if they're 12 miles from the plant. Those 19 miles away have been told to stay inside. But Jaczko Wednesday said Americans should stay at least 50 miles from the endangered nuclear plant , four times farther than the Japanese evacuation order.

    Mr. GREGORY JACZKO: We determined that in the United States we would -- we would issue an evacuation of people out to about 50 miles.

    TODD: In an interview with NBC News , the NRC chairman said he made his decision after talking to the NRC 's own group of technical experts in Tokyo .

    Mr. JACZKO: They have provided us with some information that indicated that there was a significantly degraded condition in the spent fuel pool number four. You could have a significant release of radiation from that spent fuel pool .

    TODD: At the White House , press secretary Jay Carney disputed the notion the American government no longer trusted the information coming from Japanese officials.

    Mr. JAY CARNEY: It is about, you know, standards set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission here in the United States and the kind of advice it would be giving should this incident happen in the United States or something similar to it. So again, not about the quality of information or the level of cooperation, it is about our analysis and our standard.

    TODD: The fear of radiation exposure has already driven some Americans in Japan to leave.

    Mr. KEN OSGOOD (Florida Atlantic University): Drove my wife and I nearly into a panic and we said we got to get the hell out of here.

    TODD: And even in this country people worried about the possibility of radiation making its way to the West Coast have been buying up thousands of doses of potassium iodine. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin initially told a California TV station that having the pills might be a worthy precaution.

    Dr. REGINA BENJAMIN: It's definitely appropriate. We have to be prepared.

    TODD: But NBC 's Dr. Nancy Snyderman says it's unnecessary.

    Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN reporting: In fact, the surgeon general sent me a text message that said, 'I never intended to imply that people go out and buy pills.'

    TODD: But the danger in Japan is very real, and experts believe the NRC is right to go beyond the Japanese guidelines.

    Dr. EDWIN LYMAN, PhD (Union of Concerned Scientists): I don't think you can be too cautious at this point. If the situation develops, then the risk could extend at least 50 miles and possibly even further.

    TODD: Because Japan is such a close ally to the United States , there's a lot of sensitivities here. Very late last night, President Obama called Prime Minister Kan in advance to let him know that these new advisories were going out hoping that that would smooth things over a little bit. Matt:

Timeline: Crisis in Japan

How events have unfolded since a 9.0 earthquake struck northeast Japan, triggering a deadly tsunami and nuclear power disaster.

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