Experts Reflect on Three Mile Island Nuclear Power

March 12, 2009



Harrisburg - As Pennsylvania approaches the 30th anniversary of Three Mile Island's (TMI) partial-core meltdown, the worst commercial nuclear accident in American history, experts gathered in Harrisburg yesterday to discuss nuclear power. They didn't spare it much criticism.

Eric Epstein, chair of Three Mile Island Alert (TMIA), a group that advocates for alternatives to nuclear power before the state Public Utility Commission and other governmental bodies, said this technology's proponents understate its costs. Because of the promise public officials have seen in nuclear power, he said at a Commonwealth Foundation (CF) panel yesterday, more than 60 percent of all federal research subsidization of energy research went to nuclear analysis between 1950 and 1994.

Some hoped nuclear power could shoulder America's energy burden so mush so that in the 1950s Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Louis Strauss said future generations might "enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter." Some policymakers foresaw a day when Americans would even use nuclear energy to fuel their automobiles.

A careful look at the run-up to and aftermath of the accident on March 28, 1979 at TMI should put to rest whatever enthusiasm for the technology still exists, Mr. Epstein said. Even before the meltdown, he said, it became clear TMI's backers had downplayed its ultimate costs.

"The trend is here, the trend is clear and the trend is unequivocal," Mr. Epstein said, asserting that nuclear-generating facilities are always over budget and always behind schedule.

Electricity provider Metropolitan Edison began building TMI Unit 1 in 1968, publicly anticipating a cost of $183 million. Its construction concluded two years behind schedule and cost an eventual $400 million before coming online in 1974.

TMI Unit 2, in Londonderry Township near Harrisburg, began operation in late December 1978, a mere three months before the accident necessitated its shutdown. Metropolitan Edison estimated it would cost $206 million; its building expenses eventually totaled $700 million as it was completed five years behind schedule.

During the brief time it functioned, most of the electricity it generated didn't go to surrounding communities. Much of it was conveyed to western Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

One thousand people once worked at TMI Unit 2, while no one works at what is now only a remnant of a generation plant that, according to Mr. Epstein, won't get cleaned up completely until the next century. He placed total cleanup costs at $805 million, noting that electricity ratepayers are taking on most of the expense.

What implication does Mr. Epstein believe this should have for American energy policy? "Our position is this," he said of TMIA, "We don't believe you should be building nuclear power plants until you clean up the mess you already created."

He said any supposition that nuclear-energy production will wean America off of foreign oil is particularly a "canard" because oil mainly fuels transport while nuclear energy powers grounded facilities.

"Nobody puts uranium in his car," he said.

Many would expect Mr. Epstein, a prominent Harrisburg activist who identifies as a "labor Democrat," to view nuclear power skeptically. But some advocates of smaller government and freer markets, like Cato Institute Senior Fellow Jerry Taylor, have taken much the same view.

"The markets have said ‘no' to nuclear power whenever they have been asked," he said, noting that the technology serves roughly 20 percent of America's energy needs, a statistic he attributed to its heavy subsidization.

While many policymakers have discussed tweaking regulations to allow the building of new power plants, Mr. Taylor said, the real barrier to their construction is their cost. At present, he said, one new plant costs between $6 million and $9 million to build.

Federal policy seems to have cooled in its pursuit of nuclear power since the end of the very supportive Bush administration. As a senator, Barack Obama voted against repealing subsidies for the industry but, as president, he hasn't enthusiastically aspired to bringing new plants online.

Bradley Vasoli can be reached at [email protected]