WASHINGTON -- As Japan copes with one crisis after another at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, federal records indicate almost a quarter of America's nuclear reactors in 13 states share the same containment system design of the ill-fated Japanese reactors.
The boiling water reactor plants were designed by General Electric and use its Mark I design for containing radioactivity. GE, which is donating $5 million to Japan for its relief effort, said Monday that it was too early to assess what caused the problems at the complex after it was hit by the tsumani, knocking out its backup power system.
On Monday, the Japanese crisis prompted calls for an immediate review of the 104 nuclear plants now operating in the United States, including many aging facilities, to see if they could withstand a gut-punch by nature that would kill their electricity, cripple the cooling system and threaten a nuclear meltdown.
The Japanese crisis and potential scrutiny of America's reactors comes as the nuclear industry seemingly had won a new lease on life.
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After decades languishing since the meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, there has been renewed interest in nuclear power caused by rising concerns about global warming, the need to curb carbon pollution and a quest for more electric production.
GOP lawmakers in the House of Representatives even proposed tripling U.S. nuclear production by building 200 new plants during the next 19 years.
Now that effort might be at risk.
White House officials sought Monday to assure the public that there's nothing to worry about.
"The U.S. power plants are designed to very high standards for earthquake effects," said Gregory Jaczko, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "All our plants are designed to withstand significant natural phenomena, like earthquakes, tornadoes and tsunamis."
Five of the six reactors at the Japanese plant, which suffered a third explosion early today, use the same General Electric Mark I reactor containment design used at 23 nuclear plants in North Carolina, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Alabama, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Vermont, according to a database maintained by the NRC.
All but two of them began operating in the 1970s.
The Energy Northwest nuclear plant north of Richland also is a GE boiling water reactor, but uses a newer Mark II containment design and newer GE 5 reactor design.
The U.S. reactors with the same containment systems need to be examined, said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, an anti-nuclear organization. "When the reactor designs are the same, and the reactor's ages are the same, comparisons seem more than appropriate."
On Capitol Hill, some already are calling for a halt to further nuclear development in the U.S., including Rep. Ed. Markey of Massachusetts, and Independent Sen. Joe Liebermann of Connecticut. Others, such as Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, said nuclear power is needed by the country.
And Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called the situation in Japan "very serious" but said nuclear power must remain part of the U.S. energy plan: "It's a clean source of energy that can help create American jobs and reduce our dependence on foreign countries. Like all types of U.S. energy production, we must ensure that it is done in a safe and responsible manner."
David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who directs the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety program, said reactors are built to withstand an earthquake or a tsunami, but not both on the same day. "We'll have to go back and revisit that and see if we can do better."
Richard Caperton, an energy policy analyst with the Center for American Progress, which is closely aligned with the Obama administration, said it's too early to draw lessons from Japan because it's not fully known what happened.
"The Japanese situation reminds us there's always a danger with a nuclear reactor and when we build new nuclear reactors we need to realize bad things can happen to them," he said.
Despite Three Mile Island, he said the U.S. nuclear industry has "justifiably earned a reputation for safety."
The Nuclear Energy Institute, an advocacy group for the U.S. nuclear industry, said that U.S. and international experts would study the Japan accidents and incorporate the lessons learned in the design of U.S. reactors.
President Obama, who describes nuclear power as "clean energy," last month proposed $36 billion in loan guarantees to help power companies build more plants.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said nuclear power "remains a part of the president's overall energy plan."