March 27, 2024

Three Mile Island Meets Climate Change

Yes, let’s “follow the science” — nuclear power is safe, clean, and sorely needed.

On March 28, 1979 — 45 years ago tomorrow — I was one of many employees of the corporate owner of the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear station who was called into emergency service to deal with the major accident at that plant. It was instant, unanticipated chaos. My boss called and told me to “drop everything, go out there for three days and help.”

The three days turned into six years of an intensive TMI recovery and cleanup program and then a very long career in nuclear plant safety and management.

As I look back, I shake my bald head at the paradox: the TMI event provided light years of insights and improvements in nuclear plant design, operation, and training, but at the same time, it kicked-start the anti-nuclear movement that caused us to turn our backs on our single best means of generating safe, clean, affordable, and reliable electricity.

[Author’s note: my commentary on TMI is not intended to dismiss the severity of the Chernobyl nuclear event in 1986 or the tsunami off the coast of Japan in 2011 that killed nearly 20,000 and destroyed three nuclear plants at Fukushima — those were tragic events, but fundamentally different than the TMI accident.]

In 1979, commercial nuclear power in the U.S. was still in its infancy. It was just 10 years earlier that the nation’s first commercial nuclear plant had begun operation. The TMI accident, a meltdown of the nuclear fuel core, was by far the worst nuclear accident to date — and among U.S. plants, it is still the worst ever.

In a very real sense, what happened at TMI validated the fears and beliefs of both sides of the nuclear power debate. It was an accident that nuclear proponents (myself included) thought would never happen; but it also confirmed that conservatively designed defense in depth — particularly a robust independent containment structure — could protect people and the environment from harm even if such a severe accident were to occur.

It demonstrated, with eye-popping clarity, the awesome energy generated by nuclear fission. Inadequately cooled, the melting fuel destroyed a billion-dollar power plant in just two-and-a-half hours. The accident produced terrifying human consequences, including the panic-driven evacuation by residents of nearby towns triggered by jumbled, confusing communications from plant and public officials.

But it also served as a critical learning experience in nuclear safety, lessons that have contributed mightily to the remarkable safety record of operating nuclear plants ever since. They were remarkably cheap lessons, revealed with essentially no harm to people or the environment — a conclusion proven demonstrably by years of post-accident independent assessment.

We might have expected the TMI accident to be a helpful step in the growth of the powerful new nuclear technology, consistent with the maturation of other emerging technologies such as air travel — but in the ensuing 45 years, just the opposite happened.

Before TMI, the U.S. nuclear industry had been a vibrant, growing world leader in the design, manufacture, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants. After TMI, and until just last year, the only new plants put into service were some that had already been under construction, while many others were canceled. Today, the 93 that remain in operation are all aging together, with limited lifetime remaining. Absent major revival, they are a dying breed.

Why did we effectively abandon such a promising technology? It wasn’t nuclear safety — the safety record accumulated in half a century of U.S. nuclear operation is abundantly clear. It was investor uncertainty.

Operating nuclear power plants are proven money-makers for their owners, typically running 24/7, rain or shine, pumping out gobs of needed electricity. But they are capital intensive, costing billions and taking 8-10 years to build before they can return a dollar on that investment. With that in mind, the opponents of nuclear energy obviously recognized that the most effective way to halt its development was to focus their efforts on blocking the operation of newly completed plants.

Among many anti-nuclear “successes” along those lines was applying enough political pressure to convince then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo to disallow commercial operation of the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island. That brand new, fully tested, and vitally needed $3 billion plant was dismantled before producing a single kilowatt of electricity for its customers. What could be more intimidating to prospective investors than the potential that political activists could prevent their investment from ever earning a dollar?

So here we are today, desperately needing more safe, clean, reliable, and affordable electricity, all while the climate alarmists among us who desperately want to end the use of fossil fuels in producing that electricity simultaneously oppose the very means to achieve just that, simply because they also have a long history of opposing nuclear power. Go figure.

What is the takeaway from this self-inflicted wound? It’s not just an energy planning miscalculation or a nuclear science failure. It’s a reflection of Americans’ collective propensity to embrace well-intentioned, feel-good courses of action with long-term implications — often strongly influenced by political agendas — that time and again lead us down dead-ends with no easy way out.

Examples abound:

  • We’re appalled by even isolated instances of police brutality, repelled by the notion of systemic racism, and so we allow ourselves to slip into wholly counterproductive, nonsensical solutions like defunding the police — harming mostly the people we wanted to protect.

  • Understandably unsettled by the pandemic, we support policies like “15 days to slow the spread” and allow that to morph into tacit permission for teachers unions to close our schools for two years — resulting in permanent educational setback to a generation of children, despite clear knowledge that young people were the least vulnerable to COVID.

  • In an ever more dangerous world, we meekly accept our current administration’s deliberate actions to keep our borders open, effectively inviting millions of unvetted migrants from all over the world to come here and scatter to places unknown, with little concern about the consequences to Americans’ safety and security.

  • Now, worried that climate change poses an existential threat to life on our planet, we declare war on fossil fuels and spend fortunes on subsidies for renewables — watching as electricity prices rise and availability decreases, with no detectible benefit to the climate.

Our political leaders urge us to “follow the science.” Keeping alive the immensely powerful and vitally needed supply of nuclear-generated electricity is a perfect example.

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