mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Three Mile Island

On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the second plane hit the
World Trade Center and it was clear that the nation was under attack,
US authorities issued an emergency alert, grounding air traffic and
ordering nuclear power stations and other potential terrorist targets
to go to their highest level of security. At the Three Mile Island
nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, security guards sprang into action but
soon ran into trouble: A gate designed to keep attackers out of the
plant refused to close. Two hours later the guards were still
struggling to shut it.

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This was not the first time the Three Mile Island plant had given
cause for alarm, of course. Twenty-five years ago, TMI suffered the
most serious nuclear power accident in US history. In the pre-dawn
darkness of Wednesday, March 28, 1979, the cooling system of TMI’s
Unit Two reactor malfunctioned, sending temperatures inside soaring.
For the next four days, the nation and the world watched with bated
breath to see whether a full-scale core meltdown would follow.

That Friday morning, I was interviewing Leo Yochum, a senior executive
vice president at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, for a book I
was writing about the nuclear industry. There had been no new reactor
orders for five years, and now the accident at TMI was strengthening
speculation that the US nuclear industry was doomed. But not at all,
Yochum insisted. I just don’t understand all this talk about nuclear
being dead, he complained. There’s a nuclear imperative in this
country. We know it, Wall Street knows it, and we’re prepared to meet
it.

Subsequent interviews with dozens of Yochum’s colleagues confirmed his
point: The industry had no intention of giving up. Convinced of their
technology’s historical inevitability, they would prepare for a
comeback, redoubling safety efforts and launching a public relations
campaign arguing that in the face of uncertain global energy supplies
and the threat of climate change, nuclear power was actually the most
secure and environmentally benign source of electricity available. If
everything went as planned, the executives estimated, reactor orders
should rebound by the 1990s.

That timetable has proven optimistic—there have been no new orders
yet—but the industry is still here, still planning on a bright future
and doing well enough financially in the meantime that it can afford
to wait. Current revenues come mainly from servicing the existing 103
nuclear plants in the United States. Since those plants account for 20
percent of America’s electricity, there is no chance of shutting down
the nuclear industry anytime soon. And over time, the lack of another
major accident, along with the industry’s PR campaign, has increased
public acceptance of new nukes to 50 percent of Americans.

The biggest obstacle today, as it was before the accident, is
economics. The high capital costs of nuclear plants, which are caused
mainly by their long and uncertain construction schedules (which in
turn are driven by public concern over safety), leave them unable to
compete for investment dollars. Coal, natural gas and improved energy
efficiency are much less expensive.

But if Wall Street has turned its back on nuclear power, the
industry’s longtime backers in Washington have not. The initial
Bush-Cheney energy plan proposed building 1,000 new nuclear power
plants by 2020—an average of one a week. Even the industry recognizes
that goal as ludicrously unrealistic; it has called for approximately
fifty new plants. And it has a strategy for making those plants
cost-effective: slash construction schedules. Toward that end, the
industry won approval from the Clinton Administration for new reactor
designs that allow for quicker regulatory approval; now the Bush
Administration is urging a streamlined regulatory process—i.e., one
allowing the public less latitude to raise objections and cause
delays.

But the legacy of September 11 may thwart these plans. The fourth
plane hijacked that day crashed a mere 120 miles from Three Mile
Island, highlighting the vulnerability of nuclear plants to terrorist
attack. The industry rushed out a claim that government tests had
shown nuclear plants withstanding a direct hit from a 757 jet. But the
scientists at the Sandia National Laboratory who conducted those tests
disavowed that conclusion. Meanwhile, other government tests had found
that security forces at nuclear plants had failed to repel mock
terrorist attacks more than 50 percent of the time—even though the
forces knew well in advance exactly what day the terrorists were
coming. Such shortcomings will surely raise concerns among any state
or local public officials considering approval of new nuclear plants.

Nuclear waste, long the industry’s Achilles’ heel, poses similar
difficulties, though the executives don’t understand why. If you do a
halfway decent job of disposing of it, one top executive explained
during my book interviews, it’s at least a few hundred years before
anything could go wrong, and [the citizens and legislators declaring
their states off-limits to nuclear dumping] won’t even be here then.

At Bush’s urging, Congress in 2002 overwhelmingly approved Yucca
Mountain, in Nevada, as a permanent disposal site for the nation’s
nuclear waste. But the state of Nevada has promised an extended legal
fight, and it will have plenty of evidence. A report by the
nonpartisan General Accounting Office concluded that Yucca Mountain
was chosen after a failed scientific process. And a member of the
Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, Paul Craig, recently resigned in
order to release his warning that the current design of Yucca Mountain
is certain to leak radioactive waste.

The industry and its government backers hope to overcome all these
problems by tying nuclear power’s future to the new darling of
alternative energy, hydrogen. Bush’s current energy bill proposes
spending $1.1 billion to build a reactor in Idaho to try to produce
hydrogen. Cindy Folkers of the Nuclear Information and Resource
Service, an antinuclear advocacy group in Washington, criticizes this
as both unproven and absurd, since wind would be a much cheaper means
of producing hydrogen. Steven Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy
Institute, the industry’s trade association, denies that the project
is an industry subsidy, since the reactor will be owned by the Energy
Department. Kerekes further argues that his industry is now simply
making up for having received less federal support than renewable
energy did under Clinton—a debatable claim that ignores how nuclear
subsidies over the past fifty years have dwarfed those for renewable
energy.

So, twenty-five years after Three Mile Island, nuclear power is still
not dead in the United States. As the industry pushes for a revival,
it has two advantages: US electricity demand is growing steadily as
the Internet revolution advances; and, although most environmentalists
won’t admit it, the industry has a point about the deadly effects of
today’s dominant source of electricity production, coal. Coal smoke
has killed millions of people over the past three centuries, including
today, while its carbon content has pushed the climate toward a
potentially catastrophic instability. Nuclear power may kill millions
of people someday, but it hasn’t yet, and the longer the industry goes
without another major accident, the more attractive nuclear will
look—assuming, of course, that its costs are reduced. Better than
either coal or nuclear would be a wholesale shift to a less
centralized energy system based on solar and other renewables, using
improved energy efficiency as the bridge to get there. But all these
are political choices. The nuclear option will stay alive as long as
the government keeps subsidizing it, and that seems likely as long as
George W. Bush is President.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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