What Meltdown? Nuclear Energy Rolls Along

I submit that one of the most striking developments in the wake of the Japanese nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi is the reaction in Washington--which has been a nearly unanimous agreement in both parties to proceed apace with developing nuclear power, despite the still-unfolding horror in Japan. Leave aside for now the merits of the nuclear-versus-fossil-fuels debate. That's quite a contrast to the reaction in, for instance, Germany, where nuclear angst just carried the Green Party to a historic victory over Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, which had held power for the last 58 years.

But the U.S. reaction is not just a contrast with foreign powers--it's a contrast with the way that Washington has historically reacted to industrial/environmental crises, although even before Japan there were signs that this was changing. Flash back for a moment to the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal in 1984, when a leak of deadly methyl isocyanate gas killed thousands of people. The effect in the U.S. was to rivet public attention on the dangers of toxic air pollutants; in Washington that revived, and ultimately led to the passage of, a historic environmental law, the Clean Air Act Amendments, which were stalled. An even earlier example would be the 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara that prompted Congress to pass the National Environmental Policy Act, which among other things banned new offshore drilling.

After the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, the reaction in Washington was noticeably more tepid--one reason being that there still remained at that time hope for a bipartisan energy package, of which offshore drilling was considered a necessary political component. But the Obama administration still instituted a moratorium on offshore drilling (even if it didn't last very long).

The Fukushima disaster hasn't even been a speed bump, although the prospects for any bipartisan energy package are certainly dimmer now than they were a year ago. That's why I think it's worth pausing to reflect for a moment on the significance of this news:

U.S. nuclear regulators on Friday removed a key hurdle facing Southern Co.'s bid to build two nuclear reactors near Augusta, Ga., saying the project doesn't pose environmental risks.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it completed an environmental review of Southern's proposed Vogtle units and didn't find anything that would prevent it from issuing licenses to the company, which could be the first time regulators approve the construction of a new nuclear-power reactor in the U.S. in over 30 years.

Again, leaving aside the merits/dangers of nuclear energy, this strikes me as a significant indicator of how Washington is changing: The effect of a major industrial disaster on the Washington policy-making process now appears to be absolutely nothing at all.

Drop-down thumbnail credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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