|WIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 11, No. 1 - Critical issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1999, 16 p.)|
Twenty years after the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the nuclear industry has succeeded in ways that were hard to imagine in March of 1979 a Pennsylvania cowered in fear, plants around the country lost their luster and scores of half-built reactors were abandoned. The industry is doing better now, but ironically extinction is in sight.
Today, reactors are quietly producing about one-quarter more electricity each, and the level of radiation exposure to workers is down along with the number of automatic shut-downs. Uranium fuel is cheap and plentiful, and, with low interest rates, so is nuclear power's biggest ingredient, capital. The industry has also happily achieved a lowered public profile.
Reactors are a bit like the Concordes, the supersonic transport planes that first flew a few days before the Three Mile Island accident, or the Apollo moon rockets, which made the last of their flights to the moon a few years before. They are technological artifacts of an era slipping into history.
Cloning the best practices from one utility to another, policing each other, getting more output from the reactors, the industry essentially adopted the Greenpeace motto: a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. It vowed to have no more melt-downs. Not counting the 1986 catastrophe at Chernobyl, where the nuclear reactors are of different design, the industry has so far succeeded.
Global Nuclear Energy - Percentage of energy produced by nuclear power plants for the 10 nations with the highest reliance on nuclear energy. The United States produced 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power in 1997.
The meltdown at Three Mile Island 20 years ago set off a crisis in nuclear power. Now, half the plant is running and half remains shut.
If two decades ago nuclear power seemed forbidding and secret, today anyone can log on to Nuclear Regulatory Commission Web site, which offers detailed specification for each reactor (http://www.nrc.gov./AEOD/pib/pib.html). Another table for Three Mile Island shows the temperatures at which the emergency systems will automatically start, with different numbers depending on how many coolant pumps are running.
But elsewhere technology is accelerating, too. Natural gas become cheaper to find and recover, and the system for turning it into electricity has improved steadily. The newest plants produce twice as many kilowatt-hours from a thousand cubic feet as the ones that nuclear power was competing within 1979.
The real reactor killer, according to Professor Corrandini and others, is something that was not thought of in 1979 - deregulation in the utility industry. Nationwide, power companies that will distribute electricity and sell it to consumers (like local phone companies) and other companies that will generate power and compete to sell it (like long distance carriers). If electricity is completely deregulated, the market price will be about 2 cents per kilowatt-hour at the wholesale level, a price that about 28 nuclear plants cannot achieve.
SOURCE: New York Times, March 7,