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U.S. nuclear energy under more scrutiny

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STEVE CHIOTAKIS: Well, today, in the hardest hit areas of Japan, in addition to despair, there’s fear. And in the wake of the uncertainty at a couple of nuclear power plants in the northern part of Japan, Switzerland this morning said it’s gonna suspend its plans to build new nuclear plants there.

In the U.S., Democratic Congressman Ed Markey is calling for a similar moratorium. Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman reports.

MITCHELL HARTMAN: The Obama Administration has been trying to jumpstart nuclear power with billions in federal loan guarantees. Guarantees are crucial to entice private investors, who’ve shied away from the high cost of new plant construction.

And now, critics in government are calling on U.S. regulators to review existing safety guidelines. And they want to shut down several aging plants in New England with the same design as the facility in Japan.

James Acton is a nuclear policy analyst at the Carnegie Endowment.

JAMES ACTON: Safety does cost. The more extreme events you want to engineer plants to withstand, the more expensive they have to be.

Mitch Singer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group, says there are some lessons to be learned from Japan, which will impact future reactor design.

MITCH SINGER: There may be some changes in operating procedures, a few engineering-type changes. But not necessarily anything that would add to the cost of building a new plant.

A single new reactor can cost upwards of $10 billion.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.


JEREMY HOBSON: Now to the possibility of a nuclear meltdown in Japan at some of the facilities that were damaged in the quake. One nuclear power plant suffered a second hydrogen explosion today.

Marketplace’s Mitchell Hartman has more now on what all this means for the nuclear industry in Japan — and around the world.

MITCHELL HARTMAN: Even before this unprecedented disaster in Japan, the nuclear industry wasn’t in great shape — at least in terms of building new power plants. There was a wave of optimism in the mid-2000s — on hopes that Congress would cap greenhouse gases, and that higher oil prices would spark a nuclear “renaissance.”

Instead, huge new discoveries of natural gas made that fuel cheaper. Anyone thinking of building a nuclear plant now finds financing and loan guarantees virtually impossible to obtain. It could be harder with the scary scenes coming out of Japan.

But Mitch Singer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, says don’t count U.S. nuclear power out.

MITCH SINGER: This is a learning environment in the nuclear industry world wide. We are in a constant state of lifelong learning.

Singer says U.S. nuclear plants are still in a good position in terms of safety, and they’ll get better after this latest episode in Japan.

I’m Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

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