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A Pivotal Moment for the U.S. Nuclear Power Industry

As Japanese officials scramble to contain radiation leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant as a result of this week's tragic earthquake and ensuing tsunami, others around the world are questioning the viability of nuclear power as a long term solution to global energy needs.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already shuttered seven nuclear power plants and delayed a decision on extending operations at 17 plants around the country. From France to India, government overseers and ordinary citizens are asking questions about the likelihood that a similar incident could occur in other regions of the world. All the while, news that safety concerns over the "Mark 1" reactor design utilized at the Fukushima facility were aired more than 35 years ago has shaken public confidence in the industry's ability to protect the communities it serves.

As I told the Associated Press in an interview published earlier this week, the timing could not have been worse for a nuclear power industry that was repositioning itself for growth. Before the Japanese crisis, President Obama had asked Congress for an additional $36 billion in loan guarantees for new nuclear plant construction  - on top of the $18.5 billion that has already been set aside. In the U.S., nuclear power already accounts for 20 percent of all electricity generated. Globally, 62 new reactors are currently under construction with 482 being planned or proposed.

Now, what looked like the future of energy production just a week ago is in danger of being positioned back to post-Three Mile Island relevancy.

While President Obama remains a staunch advocate for nuclear power, members of Congress are voicing concerns and may consider limiting government subsidies. As safety concerns begin to take hold amongst the general public, plans for a massive expansion of nuclear power generation in the U.S. could be put on hold. In the face of such threats to its existence, it will be up to the industry itself to make the case that its work is not only safe; but essential to sustainable energy policy moving forward.

Already, nuclear industry advocates have been in the media arguing that the fear extending far beyond Japanese borders is overblown. While they may very well be correct, that's simply not enough. They need to be leading an effort to educate the public as to why nuclear power is safe. What mechanisms are in place to protect against man-made and natural disasters? What fail-safes are in place should the worst-case scenario come to fruition? What are the industry's plans for finally addressing the issue of what to do with spent nuclear fuelí‚  - the material that now poses the greatest health risk to affected Japanese populations?

Then, once anxiety has subsided, the nuclear industry must get back to the work of branding itself as a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly alternative to its competitors. The high gas and electricity prices predicted for this summer will serve as fine back-drop for such claims. Should the Japanese clean-up effort proceed with minimal human casualties and a limited ecological impact, it  - and the lessons learned  - will provide compelling talking points as well.

At a pivotal moment in its history, it's up to the nuclear power industry to assuage public fear and return to the positive messaging that proved so effective not one week ago. The industry's future  - and that of energy production the world over  - just might hang in the balance.

Richard S. Levick, Esq., President and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, the world's top crisis firm. He is also a contributing author to Bulletproof Blog. Connect with him @richardlevick.

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