Japanese crisis renews debate in U.S., Europe on nuclear’s renaissance

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Environmental groups were jubilant that the crisis is throwing a monkey wrench into plans on the drawing board to construct new plants in several states.

Damon Moglen from Friends of the Earth said the crisis should serve to deep-six the relicensing of Vermont’s controversial Vermont Yankee power plant, which he said uses the same technology as the stricken plants in Japan.

“I don’t think that proposal is going to survive the searing images we’ve seen this weekend,” he said.

Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, added he thought the “prospects are very dim” for the congressional authorization of loan guarantees to the industry. Without loan guarantees, analysts say no new construction would be viable.

CreditSight’s Mr. Moulder said nuclear’s future seems most in doubt in Europe, where the opposition has been fiercest and most effective despite a minor revival under way in some countries.

“The economics and financing of new nuclear were always going to be difficult, but if additional design modifications and increased safety measures are sought, this could make the economics unworkable,” he said.

In the U.S., where three reactors have the same base design as the Japanese plants, “we also expect pressure to slow or stop nuclear construction,” Mr. Moulder said.

While aging U.S. plants conceivably could encounter problems like those in Japan, industry officials emphasize that the newest generation of technology avoids the pitfall of relying on power-operated pumps for cooling, relying instead on natural forces like gravity to deliver the cooling water.

Tony Pietrangelo, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said that U.S. plants have more safeguards than Japanese plants. For example, most have buried underground the diesel-fuel tanks they need for backup generators, meaning they could not be washed away in a flood like the ones in Japan.

He said he doesn’t foresee obstacles either to the relicensing of plants more than 40 years old or to the building of new plants in the U.S.

“New plant construction will be unaffected by this, given where they’re located” — in Southern states with no history of the kind of extreme seismic activity seen in Japan, he said. “We’re very confident in the robustness of these plants.”

• Shaun Waterman contributed to this report.

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