Thirty years ago this month an incident occurred near Middletown, Pennsylvania which has changed the landscape of energy production in America. At four o’clock in the morning, the main feedwater pumps at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant stopped running, causing a series of automatic systems shut-downs which ultimately led to a “loss of coolant accident.” No deaths or injuries occurred to any personnel or to residents of the surrounding area; but nuclear power production in the United States suffered a crippling blow. Not a single nuclear power plant has been licensed in the USA since that year.
Even before climate change became a concern, many experts warned that we needed to build nuclear power plants to meet the growing demand for electricity in the United States. Today, as concerns about carbon emissions increase, so too do the chances for nuclear power. Like it or not, nuclear power is one of the few technologies available for base load power generation. Base load power plants are designed to provide power 24/7. Most of us could care less about base load versus peak load power generation…until we experience an outage of some sort.
Compared to the greenhouse gases and other air pollutants emitted by coal power plants—another sources of base load power—nuclear power plants are one of the cleanest sources of energy. In fact, if it weren’t for the radiation—or, more to the point, the fear of radiation—nuclear power would be the ideal source of base load power in the United States today.
For the most part, we seem to have developed an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy towards those nuclear power stations currently in operation in this country. Most of my neighbors, for example, have no idea that we live within 20 miles of a nuclear power facility or that we get approximately 20 percent of our electricity from that facility.
Most Americans don’t know that current advances in technology could render the type of accident that happened at Three Mile Island virtually obsolete. Nor do they know that over 95 percent of spent fuel can be recycled (though not in the United States due to political concerns). They don’t know that spent fuel is currently being stored on-site at many nuclear facilities around the United States or that the debate over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which has spanned two decades and reportedly cost Americans $13.5 billion, is now officially over.
Polls show that the average American is not averse to nuclear energy, as long as we don’t have a nuclear power plant in our backyard. In other words, as long as we don’t see it, we can pretend it’s not really there and that the electricity we use in our homes and businesses just magically appears.
But those things are changing. Soon, we are going to have to get off the fence and take a stand on hard issues like how much we’re really willing to pay for the increase in our utilities if they are powered by “clean” coal and whether or not we are willing to recycle or store nuclear waste in order to continue to run our air conditioners.
As of 2006, one nuclear reactor is still in operation at Three Mile Island, though it only accounts for 9 percent of the state’s total nuclear generation. In the United States, Pennsylvania ranks 2nd in total nuclear capacity. The state is also one of the top coal producers in the country and ranks 4th highest in the United States for carbon dioxide emission—the most common greenhouse gas—2nd highest for sulfur dioxide emissions and 5th highest for nitrogen oxide, both major air pollutants emitted by coal power plants.
All of which leads me to wonder: If I had to choose between living next to a coal power plant or living next to a nuclear power facility, where would I rather be? At the end of the day, I guess I’m not that uncomfortable living where I do.
Note: Please feel free to contact me for a list of resources used in this article. Also, for more interesting facts about nuclear power, read Jessica A. Knoblauch’s commentary online at E/The Environmental Magazine.