Obama Nuclear Policy Plan Takes A Hit

The nuclear crisis in Japan is the latest blow to President Obama's effort to craft a national energy policy. Like last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, troubles at the Fukushima reactors show there's no large-scale source of energy that's free of risk.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

The Obama Administration says the situation at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is deteriorating. And it's urging Americans in Japan to stay at least 50 miles from the facility. Officials say that's the same advice they'd offer to people in this country, if a similar disaster were to happen here.

As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, Japan's nuclear crisis is the latest challenge for the White House as it struggles to craft an energy strategy for the U.S.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The Obama Administration has cautiously embraced nuclear power as the biggest source of electricity that doesn't contribute to greenhouse gases. Thirteen months ago, the President called for a new generation of safe, clean nuclear reactors.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

President BARACK OBAMA: We are announcing roughly $8 billion in loan guarantees to break ground on the first new nuclear plant in our country in three decades, the first new nuclear power plant in nearly three decades.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: The president's nuclear push is part of a broader energy strategy that also includes big bets on alternative sources like wind and solar, new standards for efficiency and continued support for traditional fossil fuels.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham crowed after a White House meeting last year Mr. Obama seemed open to an all-of-the-above energy policy, like that championed by his one-time White House rival John McCain.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): If you're a Republican, and you believe we should drill, baby, drill, now's your chance. If you're a Republican, independent, or Democrat that believes in eco-power, the store is open, now's your chance. Don't let this moment pass.

HORSLEY: In hindsight, that moment early last year may have been the high point for the president's energy agenda. Daniel Yergin is a longtime observer of energy policy and chairman of IHS-Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

Mr. DANIEL YERGIN (Chairman, IHS-Cambridge Energy Research Associates): A year ago, there seemed to be a broad agreement on a big tent for energy policy, everything from climate change legislation to expanding offshore drilling to reinvigorating nuclear power in the United States.

HORSLEY: A year later, that big tent is in tatters. Climate change legislation is off the table. Offshore drilling was all but frozen after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

And the latest crisis in Japan has rattled even some of the biggest fans of nuclear power. Here's Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman on "Face the Nation."

(Soundbite of television program, "Face the Nation")

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): I think it calls on us here in the U.S. naturally not to stop building nuclear power plants but to put the brakes on it right now.

HORSLEY: Some European countries are already doing that. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told lawmakers today the administration still backs nuclear power, even as he promised a careful study of what's happening in Fukushima.

Secretary STEVEN CHU (Department of Energy): We will take those lessons and apply them to all the nuclear facilities we have in the United States, anything that could affect them.

HORSLEY: Of course, Japan took similar precautions with its history of earthquakes and its unique sensitivity to the risks of radiation. Yergin says Japan's heavy investment in nuclear power was part of an effort to develop a variety of home-grown energy sources, much like the Obama administration is trying to do now.

Mr. YERGIN: After the oil crises of the 1970s, Japan made a determination to diversify its energy resources. They saw nuclear as increasing their resilience and reducing their vulnerability to world markets. What they have now learned is that of course the vulnerability comes not only from world markets but also from Mother Nature.

HORSLEY: Natural and manmade disasters have plagued all kinds of energy over the last year, from a coalmine explosion to an oil spill and now a tsunami-spawned nuclear crisis.

Yergin says one lesson is no matter how much preparation one does for a worst-case scenario, even supposedly failsafe systems may not be.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.

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