Japan nuclear plant, Libya show challenge of 'energy security'

The scramble to control the Fukushima nuclear reactor serves as a sharp reminder of the risks in one alternative source of energy, even as Libya fighting has raised concerns about world oil supplies. Obama and Boehner step into the policy fray.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama answers a question during a press conference at the White House on Friday, March 11. He said, "We’ve got to get moving on a comprehensive energy strategy that pursues both more energy production and more energy conservation."

One year in the 1970s saw the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and a revolution in Iran that raised fresh worries about energy policy. Now, news events of 2011 are stirring similar questions about energy supplies for the US and the world.

Much has changed in those 30-plus years since 1979, but one constant is that "energy security" remains a vitally important but difficult goal.

In recent weeks, it's been events in oil-producing Arab nations – notably fighting in Libya – that have brought this point home on Main Street America and elsewhere. But Friday's destructive earthquake in Japan could be a setback for one major oil alternative: nuclear power.

IN PICTURES: Japan's 8.9 earthquake

On Saturday, an explosion rocked Japan's Fukushima nuclear station as workers struggled to reduce pressure in a reactor where the cooling system failed after the quake. Despite major damage to the plant, and the injury of four workers in the blast, officials said the reactor's metal container remained intact and that pressure was diminishing.

The scramble to control the reactor, and the evacuation of nearby residents due to concern about the release of radiation, are a fresh reminder of risks involved in nuclear power. At the same time, though, the economy's heavy reliance on oil carries its own risks. And other alternative or renewable fuels so far only meet only a small share of world energy needs for transport and electric power.

President Obama highlighted the challenge in a Friday press conference, with a nod to the recent surge in gasoline prices:

"As long as our economy depends on foreign oil, we’ll always be subject to price spikes," Mr. Obama said. "So we’ve got to get moving on a comprehensive energy strategy that pursues both more energy production and more energy conservation."

The president pointed to progress that America has made since the 1970s. It's true that manufacturers have become much more energy efficient, homes are better insulated, and Americans are driving more fuel-efficient cars.

But Obama also said US policies haven't matched the importance of the challenge.

"We’ve been having this conversation for nearly four decades now," he said. "We’ve got to work together – Democrats, Republicans, and everybody in between – to finally secure America’s energy future."

Across town, House Speaker John Boehner issued a sharp Republican criticism of Obama's energy policies.

"While the Obama Administration claims to be committed to American energy production, the facts and its own actions say otherwise," Mr. Boehner said in a statement. He invited Obama to join in supporting a GOP-backed American Energy Initiative.

Boehner points to a drop in domestic oil production, versus levels that had been projected, since Obama took office.

Obama's rejoinder: Oil production in federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico hit a new high last year, despite the BP oil spill. He said he's encouraging more drilling, but with new standards in place.

Central planks in Republican energy policies are making it easier for the energy industry to boost domestic production, and resisting a "cap and trade" plan to reduce carbon emissions, which could act like a tax that boosts energy costs.

Obama, in his State of the Union address, argued for a policy that blends new fossil-fuel production with greater efforts at conservation and development of renewable energy sources. His said America should, by 2035, get 80 percent of its electricity from clean energy sources. He included nuclear, biofuels, clean-coal, and natural gas in his definition of "clean."

With about half of US oil coming from other nations, the conflict in Libya was a focal point of media questions in Friday's news conference. Obama said that through economic sanctions and other steps being considered by the US with other nations, "we are slowly tightening the noose on [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi."

On Saturday, however, news reports from Libya cited gains made by Qaddafi loyalists against rebels, including the capture of an important oil port.

Obama has not come out in support of a no-fly zone over Libya, as some European leaders have done, but he said the issue will be discussed at a NATO meeting Tuesday. According to news reports, the Arab League formally backed the idea Saturday.

IN PICTURES: Japan's 8.9 earthquake

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