Washington's Pro-Nuke Consensus

WASHINGTON -- When something big happens, Washington tends to react impulsively. Whether or not it's helpful or appropriate, some cosmic force seems to impel congressmen before the cameras, and before you know it, they're demanding hearings, bills, new commissions -- in a word, action. The disaster unfolding at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has riveted everybody here, as it has around the world. But so far, the response has been measured and cautious.

This may seem surprising, since any significant event these days is treated as an occasion to seek partisan advantage. That's particularly so with such visceral issues as nuclear energy. Yet practically no one has echoed Greenpeace in ''calling for the phase out of existing reactors, and no construction of new commercial nuclear reactors.''

On the contrary, most lawmakers and administration officials have hastened to emphasize that their views about nuclear power are still the opposite of those held by the likes of Greenpeace, even in the wake of the Japanese catastrophe.

Testifying before a House subcommittee on Tuesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu lauded the ''rigorous safety regulations'' that he said governed the US nuclear industry and then made it clear that nuclear energy must remain an important component of the White House energy policy. ''To meet our energy needs,'' Chu said, ''the administration believes we must rely on a diverse set of energy sources including renewables like wind and solar, natural gas, clean coal and nuclear power.''

Republicans, who lately have been calling for a ''nuclear renaissance,'' have said much the same thing, though with less emphasis upon wind and solar. On Monday, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a leading renaissance man, took to the Senate floor to remind his colleagues that no one in this country has ever died from an accident at a Navy or commercial reactor. ''Without nuclear power,'' he warned, ''it is hard to imagine how the United States could produce enough cheap, reliable, clean electricity to keep our economy moving.''

This is a marked departure from the contentious reactions to the last great environmental disaster, the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

But several things are different now. Politically, the administration's moratorium on offshore drilling turned out to be surprisingly unpopular and helped reinforce the Republican charge that President Obama is ''anti-business.'' Perhaps as a result, the White House now seems acutely sensitive to Republican skepticism of government intervention of any sort.

But beyond political factors lie common policy interests. One reason more Democrats haven't responded critically is that many now view nuclear power in the broader context of climate change. With the planet overheating from carbon pollution, nuclear energy has come to appear part of the necessary solution to a global disaster, rather than a potential source of a regional disaster, like Japan's. Republicans push nuclear power as at least a partial substitute for their lack of a comprehensive energy plan. And so, nuclear energy has appeared to be the rare issue on which both parties might agree.

Until now, the primary obstacle in Congress has not been the safety of nuclear plants, but rather how to pay for them. ''They've been stalled in large part because of financing,'' said Joshua Freed, who runs the Clean Energy Project at Third Way, a Washington think tank. ''The debate in Congress has been about how to get private-capital funding for new reactors.'' Both the 2011 White House budget (never acted on) and the 2012 version include $36 billion in government loan guarantees to help power utilities raise private-sector financing for new nuclear plants.

Before Fukushima, the prospects for action seemed reasonably positive. The main challenge appeared to be persuading Tea Party Republicans in the House of the efficacy and necessity of the government guarantees that proponents of nuclear power say are needed to move any new plants forward.

Until the Japanese crisis occurred most people thought Tea Party skeptics could be brought around or overcome. If the situation in Japan gets worse, it could open a serious new avenue of opposition. But as yet it hasn't. For now, most politicians are holding back to see what happens next. If they keep it up a while longer, the prospects for a deal on more nuclear power may yet survive.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.