Fear and ignorance followed Three Mile Island

By Michael Fox and Steven Milloy
March 28, 1999, News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)

It was the event that changed the future of electrical power – and not for the better.

On March 28, 1979, a pressure relief valve became stuck open at the Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit2 reactor. Radiation — and then fear — was released into the surrounding area. The incident all but killed the nuclear power industry in the U.S. Twenty years later, it’s not too late to repair the damage done to a safe, clean and inexpensive source of electric power.

Most Americans never bothered to learn about the accident. A new generation has been born into this ignorance, having little or no knowledge of the accident nor what’s been learned Fear has been a constant companion for those superficially acquainted with TMI.

In fact, no one was harmed. In deciding a lawsuit for alleged harm caused by the accident in June 1996, a federal judge wrote “The paucity of proof alleged in support of the Plaintiffs’ case is manifest. The court searched for any and all evidence which construed in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs’ case creates a genuine issue of material fact warranting submission of the claims to a jury. This effort has been in vain.”

Unjustified fear has crippled our ability to increase the use of nuclear power.

Reactors are about three time more costly to build in the US than other nations — even for those of the same design and size, and built by U.S. contractors. Construction duration is 2 to 3 times longer in the U.S. than other nations for the same size plants.

Japan recently built the world’s largest nuclear power plants which are 20 to 30 percent larger than U.S plants. The Japanese plants were built in 52 months (vs. 120 months for smaller U.S. plants) at a cost of $1.3 billion (vs. $4 billion for U.S. plants). U.S. reactors are also three times more costly to operate and maintain than in other countries.

Nuclear power has stagnated in the U.S., but its use has grown in the rest of the world. There are at present 104 nuclear power plants operating in the US, producing about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Thirty-two other countries have a total of 433 nuclear power plants. France leads the world with nearly 80 percent of its electricity produced by nuclear energy.

While foreign nuclear programs have improved over the past 20 years, so too has the US nuclear program. The progress has been quite dramatic, if unheralded. Operator training has improved. The number of nuclear reactor simulators has grown 10-fold. New reactor designs are much simpler and safer to operate, with as much as 40% fewer components.

Operating capacity has increased by 30 percent, the equivalent of adding 20 new power plants in the last 20 years. The Institute of Nuclear Power Operators was formed to provide strict oversight and communications in addition to that provided by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The World Association of Nuclear Operations has been formed to increase safety and communications from reactor operators around the world.

Nuclear energy is beneficial for the environment. It eliminates the emissions of pollutants that come from burning coal and oil. For the past 100 years electrical energy has been the lifeblood of our industrialized country and a major reason for our high productivity at work and creature comforts at home. Still we must ask ourselves whether we want to sustain this into the future and where will the needed electrical energy come from?

The fear of global warming threatens the use of fossil fuels. But what will replace them? Decades and billions of dollars of research have shown solar and wind power to be a pipedream.

If we are to main an economy that is the envy of the world, a huge domestic supply of cheap, safe, and clean electricity is necessary. Nuclear power should be a critical part of our future.

A great deal has been learned since TMI. We need to be much more open and deliberate about future energy choices — the reliabilities, the true energy costs, the extraordinary harm of over-regulation — and learn from experiences of the many other nations around the world.

Michael R. Fox, PhD is a consultant to the nuclear power industry. Steven J. Milloy is the publisher of the Junk Science Home Page.