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Again, America is witnessing an international crisis, this time the earthquake-tsunami aftermath in Japan. As we have seen so many times in recent years — especially after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans (2005) — our nation’s leaders appear to grow wiser by reaction rather than by a proactive approach.

We knew of serious limitations and weaknesses in the dikes in New Orleans before Katrina. Each time disastrous hurricanes roar across Florida, we see a repetition of similar damage in the same areas, affecting the same populations.

Now, as a result of the nuclear plant disaster in Japan, U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that he intends to shut down each of the nation’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors for the first-ever across-the-board safety inspection. About half of these reactors are more than 30 years old. An alarming 16 of them sit on known active earthquake faults.

Why has it taken until 2011 to take a serious look at these nuclear plants? Why has it taken a potential nuclear-core meltdown in Japan to get our attention?

Agreed, nuclear energy is a vital part of our energy sources and is here to stay, regardless of what happens in Japan. This is not about the industry or the hazards it brings; it’s about U.S. leadership and how we must prepare for disasters before they occur. In the most powerful nation in the world and one of only a handful of genuinely elected democracies, we can and must do better than we have in the past.

james w. anderson