Libya and Japan dominate the news

When both the president and Congress leave town, as this week with Obama in Latin America and with  Congress on spring recess, Washington becomes quiet, a bit empty, and, largely, void of any big news.  Not this week, because of two major international crises in Japan and Libya, which have completely overshadowed Obama’s important trip to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.

After the Japanese nuclear disaster, it appears that American confidence in nuclear power has dropped dramatically. But the disaster has not led to an intensive debate in the country on the future of nuclear power. President Obama has so far maintained that nuclear power is, and remains, an important part of the new, greener, energy policies that he advocates. He has not been met with opposition on this point, despite an apparent growing concern among Americans for nuclear power.

On Libya it is different, where Washington is experiencing a vivid debate on the U.S. role and Obama’s leadership. The questions are many: about America’s future role in the multilateral military effort, about what multilateralism really means, and about the final goal of the intervention – is it to overthrow Gaddafi?

Leslie Gelb, for example, the former New York Times foreign affairs columnist and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, is highly skeptical of the military intervention in Libya. In an article for the Daily Beast called “The horrible Libya hypocrisies”, Gelb writes that the U.S. has no vital interests in Libya but that Obama was “stampeded” into action by a combination of the neocons and liberal interventionists.  

Commentators on the right direction are criticizing Obama for not having taken the lead and acted strongly enough as it is deemed an American president. But in the country at large seems to approve strongly of Obama’s handling of the Libyan crisis. 68 percent of respondents in a new CBS News poll support the air attacks against Libya and the imposing of a no-fly zone there. And over half of those surveyed approve of Obama’s actions.

His support among Republicans on Libya is much larger than their support for his economic and budget policy. That could prove to be an advantage for Obama ahead of next year’s presidential election.

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Obama: no harmful radiation to reach America

President Obama turned on Thursday directly to the American people when he reassured them in a brief televised speech following the Japanese nuclear accident that  “we do not expect that harmful levels of radiation to reach the United States, whether it is the West Coast, Hawaii, Alaska or the U.S. territories in the Pacific.”.

The speech follows heightened concern in America following the increasingly serious reports about the damaged nuclear plant Fukushima Daiichi. The nuclear accident completely dominates the news in this country these days.  

Obama said that Americans do not need to take specific preventive measures and also said he had ordered a comprehensive security review of all U.S. nuclear power plants.

Of the 104 nuclear plants in the country 23 are of the same type, General Electric Mark 1, as the Japanese plant. Several of these are located near densely populated areas, such as that in Toms River, New Jersey, which lies just 60 miles from New York City.

About 20 percent of this country’s electricity comes from nuclear power.  Since the accident, the Obama Administration has not taken any drastic actions similar to what has happened in Germany and China. It still remains a supporter of nuclear power as part of creating a more environmentally friendly energy policy, which was also underlined by Obama in his speech as well as by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, when he testified in Congress on Wednesday.  We follow events in Japan very closely and we are prepared to learn from them, said Chu.

He also said that while the Japanese nuclear accident can prove to be more severe than that the one experienced in 1979 at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. It resulted in that no new nuclear plants were built in America for 30 years.

In another appearance before Congress on Wednesday, the head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Gregory Jaczko, said that American experts believe that the radioactive emissions at the Japanese plan are “extremely high,” but Japanese authorities have denied that this was the case.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government ordered its citizens in Japan to be much further away – more than 60 kilometers – from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and evacuation of American citizens from Japan has started on a voluntary basis.