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Congress discusses U.S. nuclear plant safety

March 16, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Congress took up the issue of U.S. nuclear plant safety Wednesday.

The events unfolding in Japan have Southern Californians worried about the safety of nuclear facilities in the state.

California is home to two nuclear plants, and they bear some striking similarities to the crippled facility in Japan.

Wednesday, congressional leaders discussed what's being done to protect us from a similar situation.

With a nuclear crisis unfolding overseas, the question in the U.S. is: Are American nuclear facilities safe?

"I can't reach that conclusion, nor can anybody at this point," said U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

The risks go beyond tsunamis like those that struck Japan.

"Can they withstand a worst-case hurricane, earthquake, tornado, ice storm? What about a terrorist attack?" said nuclear expert Joseph Cirincione, Ploughshares Fund.

On Capitol Hill Wednesday, a congressional oversight committee discussed the Japanese nuclear crisis and how it relates to U.S. plants.

Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) pointed out that California's two nuclear facilities, one in San Onofre and the other at Diablo Canyon, are located on the ocean and near earthquake faults.

"The tragedy in Japan is a chilling reminder that we're all vulnerable to unexpected disasters, whether it's an act of nature, a terrorist attack, or the operation of an oil rig or a nuclear power plant," said Boxer.

At a community meeting in San Clemente Tuesday night, elected leaders asked for operators of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station to provide safety assurances to area residents.

The Obama administration insists that American nuclear plants are safe.

"The American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place," said U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

So does the nuclear industry.

"We will glean every lesson that we can, and we will make sure that the reactors in this country, which are already safe, can even be more safe," said Shale Lies, D.C. Cook Nuclear Plant manager.

But Japan's nuclear industry had made the same guarantee.

"The nuclear industry, unfortunately, has a history of, as you've just seen in the Japanese officials, or you saw at Three Mile Island, or you saw at Chernobyl -- it doesn't matter what country -- of trying to spin it to put the best case on it," said Cirincione.

The Obama administration is planning to build several new nuclear plants, but some lawmakers on Capitol Hill said Wednesday they aren't open to the idea, especially now.