Written by Anne Paine
Several nations around the globe were reconsidering their nuclear plans Monday after explosions rocked a crippled plant in Japan and raised fears of a radiation leak, but U.S. leaders and the TVA haven't backed down from their aggressive push toward nuclear power.
Tennessee Valley Authority executives said the utility's reactors in East Tennessee and North Alabama are in areas "not prone to frequent or extremely large earthquakes" and have numerous safety features.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a strong proponent of building more nuclear reactors, tried to reassure the nation about the power source in an address Monday on the Senate floor.
"The reactor safety systems so far seem to have done their job," he said. The explosions were in secondary buildings, not in the containment structures holding the actual reactors, he said.
He also noted that the Obama administration, which has proposed $36 billion in loan guarantees for utilities to build nuclear reactors, wasn't wavering in its support.
TVA has been leading the way nationally in an effort to build more nuclear reactors on top of the six it owns with another one at its Watts Bar plant currently under construction.
The TVA board has been expected to vote next month on whether to commit ratepayers to spending billions of dollars to complete a new reactor just across the Tennessee state line in Alabama.
TVA's three 1970s-era reactors at its Browns Ferry plant are similar to the ones in Japan that were knocked out after a major earthquake and tsunami, leading to explosions, releases of radioactivity and the potential for a meltdown.
Countries revisit plans
Images from Japan of steam pouring from nuclear plants, splintered buildings and children being checked for radiation have been followed by temporary halts in some countries to nuclear power plant construction, while others have vowed to continue building.
Switzerland ordered a freeze "until safety standards have been carefully reviewed and if necessary adopted," Swiss Energy Minister Doris Leuthard said.
Germany is suspending for three months a decision to extend the life of its old nuclear power plants. Britain, Bulgaria and Finland called for a nuclear safety review.
The governments of Russia, China and Poland are among those saying they are sticking to their plans for more reactors. And in the United States, the Atlanta-based Southern Co. said it does not expect delays as it attempts to break ground on two planned reactors at Plant Vogtle, near Waynesboro, Ga.
Activists and experts outside the nuclear industry said that much is still unknown about the situation in Japan and that the tragedy has pointed out frailties that the nuclear industry has always insisted did not exist.
"What we're seeing unfold is the breakdown of the assurance by the nuclear industry that their redundancies and fail-safe mechanisms will actually work," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
"The industry has for decades told everybody that 'we can control cascading activities.' "
TVA has said its plants are safe and are built to withstand the size earthquake that might happen here, but one official said the situation in Japan is being closely monitored.
"This is a very serious event, and the nuclear industry is watching it very closely," said Ray Golden, a spokesman for TVA. "Until it's completely over and there's a thorough look at the outcome, we just can't speculate on it.
"Given what's happened, I'm sure there'll be lessons learned for the entire industry."
Residents told to stay inside
Radiation spewed today from a crippled nuclear power plant in tsunami-ravaged northeastern Japan in a dramatic escalation of the 4-day-old catastrophe that prompted the government to tell people near the plant to stay indoors to avoid exposure.
In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said that radiation has spread from the three reactors of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in one of the hardest-hit provinces in Friday's magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami.
"The level seems very high, and there is still a very high risk of more radiation coming out," Kan said.
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