The U.S. nuclear power industry just can’t catch a break. It’s been nearly a quarter century since construction began on a new plant. But with policy makers looking for cleaner alternatives to coal fired plants, it finally got some powerful friends in its corner. First and foremost, President Obama has given his support to including nuclear in the mix of clean energy options that need to be on the table. And in the House of Representatives, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich), the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is a strong supporter of nuclear energy.
So industry supporters must be burying their heads in their hands with the graphic photographs of two nuclear plants in Japan being threatened with core meltdown. There may indeed be absolutely no connection whatsoever between the Japanese facilities and the plants here in America. But that hardly matters. Perception is reality, and the public’s fear of a Chernobyl-like incident will make new approvals that much more difficult. Regardless of what happens at the plants in Japan, there will continue to be saturation news coverage of the nuclear dangers as part of the ongoing reporting on the tragedy last week.
How the nuclear energy industry handles the aftermath of the Japanese situation will be key. Industry spokesmen cannot afford to appear either arrogant or its extreme opposite– unsure. Instead, they need to be honest and forthcoming about if and how U.S. plants differ from those in Japan– and how the safety measures here are designed to eliminate such threats. Compassion, humility, and the way to go forward– those three pillars of damage control are essential now for the U.S. nuclear energy industry.
The industry could start, once Japan’s reactors are under control, with a public assessment of the plants in the U.S. that sit on or near fault lines, and the protections in place at those facilities. Second, it could undertake a credible review of those plants and make recommendations on improvements for safety there. These actions alone may not guarantee the funding and investment needed for build new facilities, but they would go a long ways towards assuring the public that nuclear power can be achieved safely.