Japan creates another challenge for Congress and the president. Our hope of finding some bipartisan agreement on energy policy and reductions in carbon emissions has been tied to an agreement to expand the use and availability of nuclear power. The problems cascading at multiple nuclear power plants in Japan have already altered our energy debate dramatically. We don’t know as of this writing, and may not know for some time thereafter, how serious the damage is to the reactors, and whether the result will be closer to Chernobyl or to Three Mile Island. The reactors are all aging, using designs that make them more vulnerable to big problems than are more modern ones.
How many existing U.S. reactors are similar and what is their status? Can they be retrofitted to make them safer from catastrophe? What about the newer plants — what would happen to them if an earthquake or other natural disaster of comparable magnitude to Japan occurred? What is the status of construction of new nuclear plants, especially in areas near potential fault lines? What is the status of security around nuclear plants — what would happen, for example, if terrorists tried to hit one or more? Do the safety features and redundancies built into the plants take into account all possible kinds of disasters? While we are at it, how safe is the electrical grid from disasters or attacks?
I do not want to rely for answers to these questions on the news media and their designated experts and pseudo-experts. If ever we had a need for serious, sober oversight hearings, and a need to cut back on the usual extravagant rhetoric on both sides, it is now. It would also be nice if Congress used this occasion for a new adult conversation, about the need for comprehensive energy policies on production and conservation, not ridiculous posturing over light bulbs. But now I am asking for way too much.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.