On the morning of September 11, 2001, after the second plane hit the World Trade Center and it was clear that the nation was under attack, US authorities issued an emergency alert, grounding air traffic and ordering nuclear power stations and other potential terrorist targets to go to their highest level of security. At the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, security guards sprang into action but soon ran into trouble: A gate designed to keep attackers out of the plant refused to close. Two hours later the guards were still struggling to shut it.
This was not the first time the Three Mile Island plant had given cause for alarm, of course. Twenty-five years ago, TMI suffered the most serious nuclear power accident in US history. In the pre-dawn darkness of Wednesday, March 28, 1979, the cooling system of TMI’s Unit Two reactor malfunctioned, sending temperatures inside soaring. For the next four days, the nation and the world watched with bated breath to see whether a full-scale core meltdown would follow.
That Friday morning, I was interviewing Leo Yochum, a senior executive vice president at the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, for a book I was writing about the nuclear industry. There had been no new reactor orders for five years, and now the accident at TMI was strengthening speculation that the US nuclear industry was doomed. But not at all, Yochum insisted. “I just don’t understand all this talk about nuclear being dead,” he complained. “There’s a nuclear imperative in this country. We know it, Wall Street knows it, and we’re prepared to meet it.”
Subsequent interviews with dozens of Yochum’s colleagues confirmed his point: The industry had no intention of giving up. Convinced of their technology’s historical inevitability, they would prepare for a comeback, redoubling safety efforts and launching a public relations campaign arguing that in the face of uncertain global energy supplies and the threat of climate change, nuclear power was actually the most secure and environmentally benign source of electricity available. If everything went as planned, the executives estimated, reactor orders should rebound by the 1990s.
That timetable has proven optimistic–there have been no new orders yet–but the industry is still here, still planning on a bright future and doing well enough financially in the meantime that it can afford to wait. Current revenues come mainly from servicing the existing 103 nuclear plants in the United States. Since those plants account for 20 percent of America’s electricity, there is no chance of shutting down the nuclear industry anytime soon. And over time, the lack of another major accident, along with the industry’s PR campaign, has increased public acceptance of new nukes to 50 percent of Americans.
The biggest obstacle today, as it was before the accident, is economics. The high capital costs of nuclear plants, which are caused mainly by their long and uncertain construction schedules (which in turn are driven by public concern over safety), leave them unable to compete for investment dollars. Coal, natural gas and improved energy efficiency are much less expensive.
But if Wall Street has turned its back on nuclear power, the industry’s longtime backers in Washington have not. The initial Bush-Cheney energy plan proposed building 1,000 new nuclear power plants by 2020–an average of one a week. Even the industry recognizes that goal as ludicrously unrealistic; it has called for approximately fifty new plants. And it has a strategy for making those plants cost-effective: slash construction schedules. Toward that end, the industry won approval from the Clinton Administration for new reactor designs that allow for quicker regulatory approval; now the Bush Administration is urging a “streamlined” regulatory process–i.e., one allowing the public less latitude to raise objections and cause delays.