Long before the tragedy in Japan, Americans were on the fence about nuclear energy. Though the technology was pioneered in the United States, no new nuclear plants have been built here in more than 30 years. While Japan's disaster is a warning, we should reserve judgment about nuclear energy's future role until we've assessed what really went wrong.
According to news reports, the problem was not initially with the reactors but with the diesel generators intended to produce backup power to cool the reactors when they were down for maintenance. Though the generators were designed to withstand seismic events, they apparently weren't sufficiently protected from the flooding brought by the tsunami. Had they been better equipped for flooding, it is likely none of the reactors would have lost cooling capacity or been damaged. In the United States, we are told, backup generators are better protected - either housed in watertight buildings or, in California's case, placed uphill to protect against flooding.
Another issue is the efficiency and competence of regulators. Since the disaster began, Japanese regulators have been criticized as lax. The Milken Institute's 2009 Opacity Index rates Japan's overall regulatory structure as less sound than that of the United States. While there are no sources we know of comparing Japan's nuclear regulators to those elsewhere, we do know that America's nuclear regulatory bodies are considered among the most competent in the world.
Finally, there are issues with the reactors themselves. Designed in the 1960s, these reactors were criticized for supposedly weak containment vessels as early as the 1970s. These alleged weaknesses were in no way kept secret. We need to clarify whether similar reactors operating in the United States and elsewhere in the world have been upgraded.
Once we understand what really caused the problems at the Japanese reactors, we can decide how - and whether - to go forward with nuclear power in the United States. Instead of panic, we need clear thinking, open minds and a sound analysis.