Thirty years after near disaster at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant, Americans who are old enough recall it as one of those days they remember what they were doing when they got word of the unsettling and uncertain event that threatened to unfold in cataclysm.
Doug Biden, a nuclear industry economist, has just taken the podium as a speaker at a conference not far from the plant where he was pointing out how cheap and reliable nuclear power was.
The over-crowded room, however, was interested in hearing other things: Should they join the tens of thousands of people fleeing south-central Pennsylvania? Should they let their children drink local milk?
Joe DeSilva, now 43, who was a high-school student in March 1979 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, near Londonderry where the Three Mile Island plant is located, recalled the worried talk of teachers as they worked to cancel school.
“This was the Cold War. We had been raised at the time to think nukes were going to get us one way or another,” he said. “I didn’t really draw the distinction between a plant meltdown and a Russian bomber.”
Upon returning home, DeSivla found his father had packed the family car to flee and complaining of a metallic taste in his mouth. He had also withdrawn all the family’s money from the bank.
“Whatever was going to happen at the plant was still being referred to as ‘Hiroshima.’ We expected to get micro-waved,” said DeSilva.
Tom Kauffman of the Washington, DC-based Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a nuclear energy lobby group, said Three Mile Island was “really a hard, cold slap in the face for the industry.”
Reaction to accident a scramble
The culmination of events was the worst nuclear mishap in the history of the American nuclear industry – a cooling system failure melted the nuclear fuel rods in the core of Three Mile Island’s No. 2 reactor, branding the word “meltdown” into the American vernacular for good.
Radiation leaked from the damaged reactor for days as government regulators scrambled to get radiation monitoring equipment into surrounding communities. Dick Thornburgh, then Governor of Pennsylvania, eventually ordered an evacuation of pregnant women and children.
The loss of coolant led to an estimated release of 43,000 curies of radioactivity, US Nuclear Regulatory Commission calculations acknowledge. But independent analysts have put that figure as high as 150 million curies.
In short, as with so many other nuclear disasters before and since – including Chernobyl in 1986, the granddaddy of them all – disputes still remain as to how serious the accident actually was, and no one really knew what to do.
Conflicting reports on deaths and injuries persist
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has maintained there were no injuries, deaths or adverse health impacts from the accident.
But the University of North Carolina’s Steven Wing in 1997 presented evidence in a peer-reviewed study showing that lung cancer and leukaemia rates down wind of Three Mile Island are 10 times higher than upwind, and that animals and plants suffered chromosomal damage.
This is akin to official UN estimate that fixed the death toll of Chernobyl at an astonishingly low 31, while cancer rates and birth defects in countries that were in the path of Chernobyl’s fallout – from Ukraine, Belarus the Baltics and Nordic countries – continue to report rising cancer rates.
NRC busy reviewing new reactor applications
The NRC has not approved a single application for a new nuclear power plant to be built in the United States since. But now, the agency is currently reviewed 26 applications for new reactors, and a spokesman licenses are expected to be issued by 2011.
The NEI’s Kauffman put a time frame on groundbreaking. "We expect between four and eight new power plants to be built between 2016 and 2018," he said.
Nuclear reactors currently generate one-fifth of America’s power. Some see nuclear as a stable, homegrown energy source in light of last year’s oil price spikes. Others see it as a way to meet carbon-reduction goals – a point of view Bellona and other environmental organisations have discredited.
Fears have dissipated
Yet, three decades after Three Mile Island, fears of an atomic catastrophe have been largely supplanted by fears about global warming, easing nuclear energy into the same sentence as wind and solar power. Dogged by price spikes and an environmental assault on carbon dioxide emissions, fossil fuels are the new clean-energy pariah.
Nuclear is seeing a bounce in public support in the United States: A recent Gallup poll shows 59 percent of respondents favour the use of nuclear power, the highest percentage since Gallup first asked the question in 1994.
"There’s a lot of support for nuclear now, and most of that support is borne out of a concern for the desire to have emissions-free energy sources," said Biden, who still advocates for power companies as the president of Electric Power Generation Association in Pennsylvania.
While President Barack Obama’s slashing of funding for the flawed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility has emboldened the anti-nuclear movement, it has also caused numerous states to consider lifting bans they had placed on building new nuclear plants until they got the green light to ship their waste to Yucca.
Some 58,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel is stored on site a America’s 104 nuclear reacors in 31 states – 580 tons of which are stored at Three Mile Island. The NRC has said this practice is safe for 100 years, but Energy Secretary Steven Chu has convened a panel to examine deep geologic storage – by far the safest storage method – and plans to present options within a year.
But enormous obstacles remain for a US nuclear build out It takes years to license and build a reactor.
Construction costs billions of dollars, and any plants licensed in the near future would fail to have any impact on curbing the current rise in emission, which according to the UN, must plateau by 2015 for the world to escape the most deleterious effects of climate-wrought disaster. This is years before any new US plants could be brought online.
All the same, Democratic and Republican alike states are trying to clear the path for new nuclear builds.
Republican Charlie Crist of Florida and Democrats Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Martin O’Malley of Maryland, governors who get high marks from environmental groups, all support proposals for new reactors in their states.
"By no means is (nuclear power) the sole answer to our energy problems, but I think it actually has a definitive place in the whole array of things we need to do to reach our goals of producing enough to meet demand," Rendell told the Associated Press.
For all its cheer leading, NRC acknowledges big dangers
The NRC acknowledges that "exposure to any level of radiation is assumed to carry with it a certain amount of risk." The NRC’s fact sheet on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation states that, "any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer and hereditary effect, and that the risk is higher for higher radiation exposures."
There is, commented Jim Riccio, Greenpeace USA’s nuclear policy analyst, no such thing as a "safe" dose of radiation.
“On this 30th anniversary of the accident at Three Mile Island,” wrote Riccio on The Huffington Post, “it’s important that we remember the meltdown and its aftermath. As nuclear corporations attempt to resell reactors as clean and safe, we must remember that Three Mile Island revealed the truth about the nuclear industry. Not only is nuclear power expensive; it’s also dangerous and deadly.”