Three Mile Island at 30: Nuclear Power's Pitfalls

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George D. Lepp / Corbis

Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant

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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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