The growing crisis at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power complex could not have come at a worse time for the U.S. energy industry.
Just when nuclear power was gaining support from two successive administrations and a growing number of lawmakers from both parties, chances for new nuclear plant construction have been dealt a serious setback from an earthquake and tsunami half a world away.
The unfolding nuclear situation in Japan may not be a death blow to the U.S. nuclear industry, but it certainly will be a roadblock as the nation plays catch-up with the rest of the world in building nuclear plants to meet its energy needs. The United States has not brought a new nuclear power plant on line in 15 years.
The Obama administration signaled Monday that the accident in Japan will force it to take another look at its policy of expanding nuclear power in the U.S. Congressional leaders involved in the long-running debate over energy policy also said caution was the order of the day.
"I think we've got to quickly put the brakes on until we can absorb what has happened," Senator Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., told CBS' "Face the Nation."
Disaster at a glance
Building on the Bush administration's efforts to revive construction, President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address proposed some $36 billion in government loan guarantees to jump-start construction of as many as 20 new nuclear power plants.
But intense media coverage of one of the worst accidents in the half-century since the industry was born has prompted government officials around the world to hit the pause button on nuclear power until the long-term impact of the Fukushima crisis becomes clear.
European countries with large fleets of nuclear power plants are flashing yellow lights on further construction. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel Monday suspended for three months a decision on whether to extend the life of that country's nuclear plants. The Swiss government also suspended plans to replace and build new nuclear plants pending a review of the Japanese accident.
The European Union's energy commissioner told a special summit on nuclear safety the EU should look into the legal, technical, economic and political consequences of Japan's nuclear crisis.
And in India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a review of all nuclear reactors in that country.
Much will depend on whether and how quickly the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi plant can be stabilized.
On Monday, a second hydrogen explosion in three days rocked the quake-damaged plant, wounding 11 workers. The plant's operators have been scrambling to cool fuel rods in three damaged reactors by flooding them with sea water. The facilities were damaged by the last week's magnitude 8.9 quake and the resulting 30-foot tsunami.
Japanese nuclear workers were scrambling Monday to keep the rods cool in order to avoid a meltdown of the nuclear rods at the heart of the reactors. Water levels dropped precipitously Monday inside one stricken Japanese nuclear reactor, officials said, and the fuel rods inside three reactors at the complex appeared to be melting.
If a complete reactor meltdown — where the uranium core melts through the outer containment shell — were to occur, a wave of radiation would be released, resulting in a major, widespread threat to public health.
The plant's operator said radiation levels outside the reactor were still within legal limits. So far, 22 workers have been contaminated with undisclosed levels of radiation.
"A lot depends on how that 600-ton containment steel vessel holds," said Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research. "That will have a big impact."
Nuclear industry proponents argue that as long as the containment vessel keeps harmful levels of radiation from the atmosphere, the crippled plant is maintaining the level of safety it was designed to provide in such an accident.
"The plants are designed to survive a meltdown without public health effects," said Ian Hore-Lacy, a spokesman for the World Nuclear Association. "The worst has certainly passed."
But the public backlash to a U.S. government policy to expand domestic nuclear power may have only begun.
Power companies around the world currently rely on 440 nuclear reactors in 30 countries — 104 of them in the U.S. — to produce roughly 14 percent of global electrical supplies. To meet rising demand and reduce carbon emissions, power companies outside the U.S. are building 63 new plants. Another 158 plants are in the planning stages and 324 more have been proposed, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Europe and Japan are among the most heavily reliant on nuclear power. Sixteen countries get at least a quarter of their electrical power form nuclear, including Japan (30 percent), France (75 percent), Belgium (51 percent) Finland (33 percent) Germany (26 percent) Switzerland (40 percent) and Sweden (34 percent). Those countries have only a handful of new plants under construction.
China has by far the world's most ambitious program to expand nuclear power with 27 plants under construction. That would more than triple the number of plants in China and boost nuclear power output roughly five-fold. Some 50 more plants are in the planning stages and another 110 have been proposed.
That contrasts with a long construction hiatus in the U.S., which hasn't licensed a new nuclear power plant in more than 30 years. Public concerns about nuclear safety following the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster certainly played a part.
Nuclear power construction ground to a halt in the 1980s largely because of a huge financial disaster too. In 1989, after spending 16 years and $6 billion to build the Shoreham nuclear plant, Long Island Lighting Company was not able to get final operating approval, and closed the plant without selling a single megawatt. That fiasco effectively froze financing for the next generation of nuclear projects then on the drawing boards.
The Bush administration's Nuclear Renaissance program, a policy also endorsed by the Obama administration, was to provide government loan guarantees and tax breaks to jump-start construction in the U.S. of a new generation of safer nuclear plants.
One major safety innovation, for example, might have helped operators flood the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors with water and stabilize them more quickly. Because the cooling process at Fukushima, which came on line in 1971, relies on pumps that may break or lose power in an accident, new plant designs include a huge pool of water suspended above the reactor, much like a large water tower, ready to flood the core using gravity in place of failure-prone pumps.
By standardizing the design, approval and regulatory process, the government's Nuclear Renaissance plan aimed to overcome the cost-overruns and red tape that plagued the first generation of "one-off" nuclear plant designs that had to undergo separate technical and regulatory views.
But despite government efforts to kick-start a new wave of nuclear power in the U.S., just one new plant is under currently construction, according to the World Nuclear Association.
Safer than driving
After nearly 14,000 "reactor years" of operation, the nuclear power industry has developed a safety record that few industries can match. Since the industry began in the U.S. in the 1950s nuclear power plants have posed a much lower threat to public safety, statistically speaking, than cars. Since 1975, there have been roughly 1.4 million highway fatalities. In the years following the 1979 nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, no fatalities have been linked conclusively to radiation released by the accident.
But with public anxiety heightened by the accident in Japan, anyone proposing to build a nuclear plant in the U.S. will likely face stiff resistance, according to energy industry analyst John Kilduff.
"The 'not in my back yard' contingent fires itself up, and the permitting process is tortuous and the economics come and go with the price of oil," he said. "'Drill, baby, drill' is going to be a lot more resonant with folks (in the U.S.) than taking a chance on a new nuclear plant."
Faced with those existing obstacles, it's unlikely that the accident in Japan is going to put U.S. power companies in a better mood to build more nuclear plants. Further, since the effort to revive nuclear power began a decade ago, a much more attractive alternative has popped up in the ongoing cost-benefit analysis of figuring how to meet consumers' growing demands for reliable power.
That new alternative is natural gas, now believed to be much more plentiful in the U.S. following applicable of new extraction technique called oil shale fracking. The process — which involves forcing gas from underground shale deposits with high pressure steam and toxic chemicals — is not without its own threat to public safety. Critics caution that the long-term effects on drinking water are not fully known.
But for anyone looking to build a new power plant, natural gas is the fuel to beat. Natural gas plants are cheaper and quicker to build; they also produce lower emissions of greenhouse gas than the coal-fired plants that remain the industry's primary workhorses.
"Natural gas is going to be the default fuel for the next several years," said Yergin. "It's a lower carbon fuel, and now that it appears we have such an abundance of shale gas."
© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints