WASHINGTON, March 18 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered a safety review of the nation's nuclear power plants amid heightened concern over the safety of the energy source in light of the crisis at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant.
"Our nuclear power plants have undergone exhaustive study and have been declared safe for any number of extreme contingencies," Obama said Thursday. "But when we see a crisis like the one in Japan, we have a responsibility to learn from this event and to draw from those lessons to ensure the safety and security of our people.
"That's why I've asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a comprehensive review of the safety of our domestic nuclear plants in light of the natural disaster that unfolded in Japan."
He stressed that "we do not expect" harmful levels of radiation from Japan to reach the United States or its Pacific territories, he said, repeating the statement twice for emphasis.
On Friday Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency raised the severity level of the crippled Fukushima reactors from 4 to 5, on an international scale of 7. That's the same level as the Three Mile Island nuclear plant disaster in Pennsylvania in 1979.
Obama in his speech said nuclear energy was "an important part of our energy future, along with renewable sources like wind, solar, natural gas and clean coal."
Nuclear power provides 20 percent of the United States' electricity.
The nuclear industry's lobbying group, in response to Obama's announcement, said it shares the president's call to incorporate safety lessons from the Japan disaster.
Marvin S. Fertel, president and chief executive officer of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said in a statement, "Like the president, our industry recognizes that there is concern about the accident in Japan and we are providing resources and expertise to the Japanese industry to return the Fukushima plant to a safe condition."
Fertel said a review of the nation's nuclear plants is "an appropriate step after an event of this scale" and the group expects that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission "will conduct its own assessment."
"The industry's highest priority is the safe operation of 104 reactors in 31 states and we will incorporate lessons learned from this accident at American nuclear energy facilities," he said.
Alex Flint, senior vice president for government affairs at the institute, told reporters Thursday that the organization hasn't changed its projection of four to eight new plants to come online in the United States by 2020.
"We see the nuclear reactor construction proceeding as previously anticipated," Flint said, Washington's The Hill newspaper reports.
The president's order for a review of U.S. nuclear plants comes a day after a USA Today/Gallup poll indicated diminishing support among Americans for the use of nuclear power in their country.
The poll indicates 44 percent of respondents in favor and 47 percent opposed to "the construction of nuclear power plants in the United States," with 70 percent saying they are more concerned about a nuclear disaster occurring in the United States after the events that have occurred in Japan.