Three Mile Island at 30: Nuclear Power’s Squandered Potential

Three Mile Island at 30: Nuclear Powers Squandered Potential

If the Three Mile Island atomic reactor near Harrisburg hadn’t melted down 30 years ago this Saturday…well, there probably would have been an accident somewhere else. The entire U.S. nuclear industry was melting down in the 1970s, irradiated by spectacular cost overruns, interminable delays and public outrage. Forbes later called its collapse “the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale.”

The TMI fiasco was a scary cultural moment, coming just two weeks after the release of the movie The China Syndrome, but there was nothing particularly tragic about it. It didn’t kill people. It didn’t kill nuclear power, which still provides 20% of U.S. electricity. It didn’t even kill TMI; the plant’s surviving reactor is about to receive a 20-year extension of its operating license. If anything, the core meltdown did some good, prompting desperately needed upgrades of nuclear safety standards.

No, the real tragedy was the dysfunction of the fledgling U.S. nuclear industry, which was already canceling new reactors all over the country before TMI, and has not ordered one since. That’s a shame, because nuclear reactors produce no carbon emissions. If we got 80% of our electricity from nukes today, as France does, we’d emit nearly a third less carbon. It would be the greenhouse-gas equivalent of taking all our cars off the road. So it would be nice if we could turn back the clock.

The other tragedy is that we can’t. There’s huge hype these days about a “nuclear renaissance,” since the industry now has its act together, fossil fuels are frying the planet, and solar and wind are only intermittent electricity sources. But nuclear energy is still paying the price for the disastrous era that ended with TMI. And it’s too high a price.

The story of the original collapse of the American nuclear industry has been told many times. It is basically the story of an immature industry that grew way too fast, quintupling the size of its plants in just a few years, even as it was struggling with dangerously complex new technologies and an understandably onerous regulatory process, buffeted by plummeting electricity demand and soaring interest rates. The last nuclear plant ordered by a U.S. utility broke ground in 1973 and took 23 years to finish. The average cost overrun for a reactor approached 300%; the Washington Public Power Supply System—known as “whoops”—walked away from three plants mid-construction, triggering the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history. Even the reactor that failed at TMI was $500 million over budget and five years behind schedule.

After TMI, the industry became radioactive. A famous NRC study found the potential for hundreds of thousands of deaths from a catastrophic meltdown. The federal government hasn’t met its responsibility to store nuclear waste, despite pouring billions of dollars into a hole in Nevada. Nuclear energy got caught up in the nuclear freeze, even though that was supposed to be about nuclear weapons, and the spread of terrorism and rogue states has lent some credence to fears of proliferation. After Chernobyl,which was much worse than TMI, nuclear power seemed like way more trouble than it was worth.

The good news is that today’s nuclear industry is no longer dysfunctional. It’s not perfect—an Ohio reactor nearly melted down in 2002, and the lead operator of a Florida plant recently quit after accusing his bosses of unsafe practices—but it has learned from its mistakes. Its reactors ran at a record 92% capacity last year. It’s doing a better job of storing its radioactive waste at its plants. It has standardized designs for new reactors, which should enhance safety, and it has successfully lobbied to streamline its regulatory process, which should reduce delays.

And thanks to the climate crisis and a 30-year stretch without serious accidents in the U.S., no-nukes sentiment has faded; a Gallup poll this month found that 59% of Americans now support atomic power. The industry has an even broader base of bipartisan support in Congress, which continues to funnel it billions of dollars worth of loan guarantees, tax breaks, insurance benefits and direct subsidies; the latest goodie is “risk insurance,” which will reimburse the industry for regulatory delays. States are devising even more creative incentives for new plants; Florida has promised to pay utilities for nuclear investments even if they never complete any reactors, and may allow nuclear to qualify for renewable energy subsidies—even though it’s not renewable.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has now received applications for 26 new reactors. If all goes well, the first could come online around 2016. The first problem is, scientists believe we need to slash emissions now, in order to get back to 1990 emissions levels by 2020, and there’s no way new nuclear plants can even make a dent in the problem. Even if the industry’s backers got their wish of 45 new plants by 2030, that would barely replace the aging plants that are scheduled for decommissioning.

Anyway, many of the new plants will never be built, and shouldn’t be built, because of a second problem: Once again, nuclear power is turning out to be way more expensive than originally advertised. The plants are cheap to operate, but unbelievably costly to build; estimates for new plants have doubled and even tripled over the last year or two. One recent study priced new nuclear generation at 25-30 cents per kilowatt-hour; new wind power comes in around 7 cents, about the same as coal, and investments designed to reduce electricity consumption through more efficient appliances, lighting or buildings cost about 1 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour saved. This is why nobody on Wall Street or Main Street or any private-sector street will make real investments in new nuclear generation; U.S. utilities rely on ratepayers and taxpayers, while France and China rely exclusively on public funds. A Warren Buffett-owned company was involved in an Idaho project, but scrapped it once costs began to escalate.

And why are costs spiraling out of control again Yes, the global credit crunch has increased the cost of borrowing, and oil spikes have increased the costs of materials. But ironically—tragically, really—the main problem has been the 30-year hibernation of the nuclear construction industry, the legacy of the incompetence that led to TMI. The specialized workforce of nuclear engineers, welders and other reactor-builders has withered, which means higher labor costs and more delays. Our nuclear industrial base has atrophied as well; for example, the world’s only steelworks capable of forging containment vessels is now a Japanese monopoly, forcing utilities onto a three-year waiting list to pay exorbitant prices.

It’s too bad that nuclear plants make so little sense to build, because they’re great things to have once they’re up and running. If the nuclear industry hadn’t been so screwy before TMI, we might not be so dependent on filthy coal plants today. But we are. Now we have to make fresh choices about where to spend our energy dollars, and we don’t have the trillions of dollars it would take to solve our energy problems with a nuclear renaissance. As President Obama has said, nuclear power will remain part of our energy mix, but wind and efficiency are where we need to expand.

Thirty years after TMI, nuclear power has turned out to be the Mickey Rourke of the U.S. energy industry — or maybe the Darryl Strawberry, a story of spectacular potential wasted by self-inflicted wounds. It got its act together in time to salvage a decent career, but oh, what it could have been.

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