In the tradition of nuclear industry euphemisms, Carl Walske, president of the Atomic Industrial Forum, calls the Three Mile Island accident of March 1979 “a valuable learning experience.” He also has referred to it as an “incident” — a common corporate substitute for “accident.”
Well, this “incident” will cost the nation’s consumers and taxpayers at least $8 billion in direct and consequential expenditures. This is a sum more than double the cost of the country’s worst natural disaster — hurricane Agnes in 1972. And TMI was considered a near-miss from what could have been $100 billion in area-wide devastation in Pennsylvania.
General Public Utilities — the utility that owns the two giant shut-down reactors — wants all consumers of nuclear electricity anywhere in the country to pay for the accident. GPU said that since consumers benefit from such electricity, they should pay its costs.
Nothing doing, say the Duke Power, Commonwealth Edison and Wisconsin Electric companies. The utility fraternity is not that tight yet. The three utilities do not believe it is appropriate for ratepayers in their states to pay for an accident in another state. Other utilities have just quietly ignored the GPU request.
Where else might GPU turn next? You guessed it —Uncle Sugar in Washington. If not the ratepayer, why not the taxpayer?
A few days ago, at GPU’s urging, the entire Pennsylvania delegation in Congress had a private meeting to consider the possible bailout of the company. The representatives and senators decided to set up a committee composed of five Democrats and three Republicans. The majority is leaning against a bailout, which is bad news for the banks and shareholders who would like anyone but themselves to pay up.
Nevertheless, the delegation is studying the request and will issue a report reflecting its position before December.
While considerable attention has been focused on the radiation hazards of TMI, little emphasis has been placed on the economic cost and the widespread uncertainty the accident produced.
Barring a major meltdown and breach of containment accident, spiraling costs and uncertainty may stop the nuclear industry altogether. TMI’s costs, compiled in an excellent article by the Charlotte, N.C., Observer, involve the expenditures of trying to clean up and repair the damaged reactor (now estimated at close to $1 billion), the cost of replacement power and the engineering changes that must be made for all nuclear plants because of the deficiencies of the TMI reactor.
The status of every atomic power reactor, then is directly affected by the weakness of any one reactor. This prospect of constant re-engineering, technical and labor delays, and very high interest rates spells the word that utility executives dread most — “uncertainty.”
Banks and other financiers of nuclear power do not like uncertainty either, and they will bail out of the nuclear industry unless Uncle Sam provides loan guarantees and other subsidies. That is the political showdown that is coming in Washington during the next two years: whether the taxpayer will be forced to give the utilities a gigantic welfare system.
In the meantime, the sun and its derivatives remain abundant as alternatives ready-in-waiting.