On March 28, 1989, the tenth anniversary of the nation’s most serious nuclear accident will be observed by anti-nuclear groups around Three Mile Island (TMI) near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The events will serve to remind Americans that “those who ignore the lessons of history will be condemned to repeat them.”
Who has learned the lessons of a near-catastrophic meltdown that could have rendered an area as large as Pennsylvania uninhabitable? Not the President of the United States and his appointees at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy. Bush is gung ho for atomic power.
Not GPU — the utility which owned and operated TMI in the many negligent and incompetent ways that official reports documented. None of its top management was either fired or prosecuted. GPU stock has risen from $9 per share after the accident to over $37 this month, despite the fact that the damaged reactor is still seething with hot radioactive material and water yet to be removed.
Overall, the electric generating industry has learned a lesson, however begrudgingly. Today there are just two atomic power plants under active construction as compared to 90 such plants in 1979. In a report for WorldWatch, Christopher Flavin observes that “Three Mile Island revealed flaws in the safety systems essential to the safe operation of nuclear plants. But in the years since the accident, U.S. nuclear plants have experienced nearly 30,000
mishaps, some with the potential to have caused even more serious disasters.”
However, it is the zooming cost of nuclear plants that have cooled utility executives off the electric atom. Construction costs has quadrupled to an average of $3,700 per kilowatt or over $4 billion per plant.
Atomic energy is the most expensive way to generate electricity — even without counting the costs of storing its deadly wastes for at least 250,000 years. Between 1974 and 1987, 108 planned atomic plants in the U.S. were cancelled. No matter, say Reagan and Bush who have spent five times more of your tax dollars on nuclear research and development than on energy efficiency and solar power.
Public opinion seems to be going the opposite direction from Reagan-Bush. Opposition to more atomic energy plants has doubled to 60 percent from the days before the TMI accident. Probably more Americans would be against nuclear power were it not for the tens of millions of dollars that the giant energy corporations have spent on television and print ads promoting the nukes along with Washington’s incessant boosterism.
In the last decade, numerous newspaper investigations, foremost among them being the Knight-Ridder series, have described the spills and leaks of radioactive water and gases further and further from the plants and the dumps. More data have been released about worker exposures to radiation and the sorry state of poorly trained technicians and guards sleeping or on drugs or alcohol.
The nuclear industry is pushing for another around. They are telling us about safer, new reactor designs and posing the nation’s energy choice as being between fossil fuels with its global warming effects and atomic power.
Should we believe an industry that has set records for deceit and wrong predictions (remember when they said that nuclear power would be too cheap to meter)? Not if we allow our common sense to point toward ever more efficient uses of electricity (building on the gains of the past 15 years) and a determined transition to the various kinds of solar power.
As Flavin reports, the recent record is very clear that energy efficiency “could make large energy contributions in a matter of months, and renewable sources in a few years.” There energy paths are also cheaper and far more respectful of future generations. (Interested readers can send $3 for a new report titled “A Decade of Delay, Deceit and Danger: Three Mile Island 1979-1989” by writing Three Mile Island Alert, 315 Peffer Street, Harrisburg, PA 17102.