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U.S. Nuclear Power Friction

Engineers in Japan are working to prevent a meltdown at three reactors after Friday’s earthquake and tsunami forced a shutdown of the units.

The accident has already started to raise doubts about the future growth of the nuclear power industry, which had been seen as an alternative to expensive fossil fuels like petroleum and natural gas.

In Europe there are already calls to prevent any new reactors from coming online.

And the explosion could hurt a renaissance for the sector in the United States, which has more than 100 reactors- that provide about 20 percent of the country’s electricity.

Robert Alvarez of the Institute for Policy Studies says, “I think when the dust settles it’s going to take several years for us to understand what really happened here. But we do have enough information right now to know that a very serious problem is unfolding, that is still not under control, and that this should serve as a cautionary warning for the United States.”

But the White House said it is committed to keeping nuclear energy part of the U.S. energy mix. The plants are part of the Clean Energy Standard, which requires companies to produce 80 percent of their electricity from clean sources by 2035. A single nuclear plant provides hundreds of jobs in construction, maintenance and security.

Richard Myers of the Nuclear Energy Institute defends the use of nuclear energy plants, saying, “We believe they are safe. The nuclear regulatory commission believes they are safe. They are designed to maximum credible seismic events, which are typically based on historical records on – of earthquake activity in the area. So we have complete confidence that the operating plants will perform extremely well through whatever they are put through”.

But the dramatic video in Japan was a reminder to both sides of past nuclear accidents like that of Three Mile Island in 1979- the worst in US history, and of Chernobyl, which 25 years after its nuclear accident remains uninhabitable.

And the latest accident is forcing investors to question the safety of nuclear power generation, too. One of the investment shocks in Japan we detailed yesterday is in uranium stocks. They’re getting clobbered, selling off by double-digit margins.

If the nuclear impact worsens, or human emotion grabs hold of energy policy, trading in uranium miners like Paladin Energy (Toronto: PDN.TO), Cameco Corp. (NYSE: CCJ) and Denison Mines Corp. (AMEX: DNN), among others, promises to be extremely volatile.

Bottom line: The U.S. operates more than 100 reactors, and the nuclear accident in Japan is raising concerns about the future of nuclear energy in the U.S. And as concerns mount, stocks of uranium miners promise to be extremely volatile.