Three Mile Island at 30: Nuclear Power's Pitfalls

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George D. Lepp / Corbis

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant

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. (See the 10 worst nuclear disasters.)

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. (Read Nuclear's Comeback: Still No Energy Panacea.)

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. (Read the original 1979 TIME cover story on Three Mile Island.)

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.

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