THE ACCIDENT at the nuclear plant on Three Mile Island suddenly has aroused the attention of millions to the possibility of an atomic power holocaust.
Gone are the days when mass media such as Time and Fortune can glibly promote the atomic industry’s deceptions and ignore its dangers and enormous costs. I spent nearly an hour almost six years ago with the editor-in-chief of Time urging him to do a cover story on the A-plant controversy. It was better to inform the public with a cover story before an accident rather than after one. Subsequently, Time wrote several obsequiously titled essays and articles favoring the electric atom. The first cover story had to await Three Mile Island.
Television reached throughout the nation with its searing message, its poignant interviews of townspeople and its instructional graphics on the operations and failures of nuclear plants. A quarter of a century of government and utility industry propaganda, high school slide shows and thousands of briefings went down the drain. Atomic power is an energy source with just one bite of the apple.
Gone are the days when politicians could avoid taking a stand on atomic power. It is now a front-burner issue.
Gone as well are the days when consumerists and environmentalists tried to believe that James Schlesinger was manipulating innocent Jimmy Carter’s campaign positions. On energy matters, they are both cut out of the same cloth — more concerned in public statements after Three Mile Island with the health of the atomic industry than with the health of the exposed population.
Carter knows fully the limitations of nuclear energy. Remember his admonition during the 1976 campaign that it should be used only “as a last resort.” Recall his recommendations plants be built underground and there be federal inspectors around the clock with the authority to shut down the plants in an emergency. Three Mile Island reactor had no federal inspector. The utility decided when to turn itself in and waited three critical hours that morning.
Pennsylvania is one of 40 states which do not meet minimum federal standards of emergency evacuation plans in case of a meltdown. These state plans were criticized for their ineffectiveness by several high-level official studies. Yet, 30 state utility commissions and the NRC rejected a 1975 petition by citizen groups to require utilities to inform their consumers of the evacuation plans’ details and conduct practice drills.
Informing the public about how to evacuate was said to be “subject to misinterpretation” or “would be too complex for the public to understand.”
Given the NRC’s warning of a possible meltdown, the radiation and emissions from the plant and the woeful state of evacuation plans, prudent caution would have called for an orderly evacuation of the people. Instead the politics of industry prevailed.
It is increasingly likely that the nuclear industry is crumbling. The big banks are refusing to back new nuclear plants because they believe they are bad financial risks. The utilities are almost out of the business of ordering new plants themselves.
Most reactor manufacturers want to get out of the business. This is even more remarkable when one considers that the nuclear industry is given limited liability protection from damage suits and can charge consumers higher rates to recover their losses when their atomic plants are shut down for repairs or accidents.
It comes down to Carter and Schlesinger as the last-resort defenders of nuclear power. To avoid the industry’s collapse on economic grounds, they may consider further bailout subsidies. But they are fast losing their grip to the legitimate fear and revulsion building throughout the nation over Three Mile Island.
If that accident doesn’t result in a decisive political reversal for the industry, the way will be open for a major meltdown and massive human tragedy.