The Hill: Sen. Alexander says Japan tragedy should not force retreat from nuclear power

Posted on March 14, 2011

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Monday said the U.S. should not abandon the use of nuclear power in the wake of the tragedy in Japan, and said instead that the U.S. should incorporate the safety lessons learned in Japan into its own reactors.

"While the risk is by no means over and the events in Japan continue to evolve, the reactor safety systems so far appear to have done their job in withstanding the earthquake, tsunami, power loss, and explosions -- and none of the reactor containment structures seem to have been breached in these worst-case conditions," Alexander said in remarks on the Senate floor. "The lesson that America can take away is this: learn all we can from this Japanese experience to make the operation of American reactors as safe as possible."

Alexander added the nuclear power is a component of modern life that poses risks to be managed. "The 1.6 million of us who fly daily would not stop flying after a tragic airplane crash," he said, noting similar dangers associated with highway travel and energy exploration. "In all these cases we do our best to examine the tragedies and make our continued operation as safe as possible."

Alexander, who has supported the building of 100 new nuclear plants in the U.S. in the next 20 years, noted that the U.S. has a good history of managing nuclear power safely. He said that even as Americans were reminded over the weekend of the Three Mile Island accident, they should also be reminded that no one was hurt in that accident.

"As I said before, there has never been a death resulting from a commercial nuclear accident in American history," he said. "What happened at Three Mile Island was basically an operator error."

Alexander argued that nuclear technology has evolved further from the late 1970s, when the U.S. stopped building nuclear plants. This evidence was found in the Japanese reactors damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. Alexander said the release of radioactive vapor in Japan was controlled, and that Japan has halted further damage by dumping seawater into the reactors in order to cool their cores.

"Despite one of the largest earthquakes in world history, with accompanying tsunamis, fires and aftershocks—multiple disasters compounded one on top of the other—the primary containments at reactors near the epicenter appear not to have been breached and the radioactive release has been minimal and controlled," he said.

Alexander's call matches that of the Obama administration, which said Monday that it will not back away from nuclear energy.