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Fears mounting over U.S. nuclear plants

By Jim Acosta and Evan Glass, CNN
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U.S. nuclear plants in question
  • The controversial Diablo Canyon plant is near San Luis Obispo, California
  • Residents worry that a Shoreline Fault earthquake could spark a meltdown
  • Companies say the reactors are designed to withstand an earthquake

Washington (CNN) -- Just two months ago, California residents living near a controversial nuclear power plant grilled nuclear regulators over the reactor's safety at a public hearing.

At issue was the 2008 discovery of a previously unknown earthquake fault located less than a half mile off shore from the plant.

"Can you be sure there isn't another fault out there," asked one woman at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing.

Officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the owner of the plant, PG&E, told residents the plant could withstand the magnitude of quake that's likely to be triggered by the Shoreline Fault.

"There could be (other faults). But if there are other faults out there, in my judgment they would be low slip-rate faults," said Lloyd Cluff, director of PG&E's Earthquake Risk Management Program.

"So they're not critical," Cluff said, explaining that low slip rate faults are less dangerous.

Interactive: Nuclear power plants in the U.S.

A quake along the Shoreline Fault is predicted to reach magnitude 6.5, according to PG&E. The earthquake that hit Japan last week has been revised upward to a magnitude 9.0.

With PG&E wanting to extend the license, the 26-year-old Diablo Canyon plant near San Luis Obispo is likely to face more scrutiny in the aftermath of the nuclear crisis in Japan. The additional questions over the plant's safety come at a critical time for the U.S. nuclear industry.

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The NRC is reviewing applications for 19 new reactors across the country. Most of the new plants are slated for sites where reactors already exist. None are slated for California which has a moratorium on new nuclear power plants.

President Obama has proposed expanding nuclear power in the U.S. as a green energy source. In fact, the president touted Japan's push toward nuclear energy at a town hall meeting in 2009.

"Japan does it and France does it, and it doesn't have greenhouse gas emissions. So it would be stupid for us not to do that in a much more effective way," the president said.

The White House is showing no signs of backing away from nuclear energy now.

"We are going to continue to seek to diversify our energy supplies. We're going to continue to make sure that each and every one of those sources is as safe as humanly possible," Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman said at a White House press briefing Monday.

Republican backers of nuclear energy in Congress agree.

"If we want to compete long-term with China, this is where China is headed. this is where France already is in terms of the baseload of their electricity coming from nuclear power," said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California.

Nunes has proposed a comprehensive energy bill that calls for 200 new nuclear power plants by 2040. The bill has more than 50 sponsors, including House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan. Citing the rarity of the disaster that caused the nuclear crisis in Japan, Nunes insists the catastrophe may actually strengthen the argument for building more reactors in the United States.

"As we wait to see what happens, I believe this will make the case for nuclear power in the long run," Nunes said.

Some Democratic critics of nuclear power say not so fast. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, has called for a moratorium on additional reactors in quake-prone areas and new safety measures at existing plants.

"What is happening in Japan right now shows that a severe accident at a nuclear power plant can happen here," Markey said.

At a White House press briefing, NRC chairman Greg Jaczko did not directly answer a question on whether the nation's 104 existing nuclear reactors could withstand the magnitude of the quake that struck Japan.

"We have a strong safety program in place to deal with seismic events that are likely to happen at any nuclear facility in this country," Jaczko said.