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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nuke Power: Past and Future

Air Date: Week of

Today, 20 years after the meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, nuclear power is still highly unpopular with the American public and investors.

Since the debacle at Three Mile Island nuclear power has been on the skids in the U.S., even though new technologies have spawned safer plants that cause less environmental and health damage than coal-generated electricity. Some in the industry say that, as the threat of global warming looms, nuclear plants can stage a comeback. Host Steve Curwood explains.


CURWOOD: Nuclear power is the newest technology to make electricity on a large, commercial scale, and it's probably the most controversial one. Today, 20 years after the meltdown at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, nuclear power is still highly unpopular with the American public and investors. And no new plants have been ordered in this country over these past 20 years. The irony is that since the Three Mile Island debacle, engineers have invented far safer nuclear technologies. And nuclear electricity has, some argue, a much better health and safety record than our nation's most popular way of generating electricity, coal. So, let's look at how we got into nuclear power, where it has taken us, and where it might be going in the future.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Forty-two years ago, when the first plant went on line, it was predicted that electricity from nuclear power would be too cheap to meter. It was also designed to turn the dreaded atom of the bomb into an atom for peace.

EISENHOWER: I will now use this neutron rod to generate fissions, which will start the reactor supplying electrical power at the plant.

CURWOOD: President Dwight Eisenhower himself participated in the debut of the first commercial nuclear power plant in the world, on December 18th, 1957. As history would have it, it was built in the same state as Three Mile Island, but further west, in the rural Pennsylvania town of Shippingport.


MAN: Here at Shippingport, some 1,500 people jammed into a large tent for the dedication are watching a megawatt needle as it climbs slowly from zero towards a mark of 60,000 kilowatts, that represents the full capacity of the power plant here at Shippingport. (Applause in background)

CURWOOD: The trouble was, this first commercial reactor was a quick redesign of a unit made for a Navy vessel. And because of all the secrecy surrounding nuclear things in those days, the public never had a chance to question or even comment.

MAKHIJANI: Even industry people criticized this approach as being too rushed and too hasty, and the nuclear industry paid the penalty for it 2 decades down the road.

CURWOOD: Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, says the basic design was riddled with flaws. The worst: a requirement for a concentration of uranium so hot that it had to be kept cool by water at all times. Even a few seconds of drying would cause it to overhead and melt down. This meant the nuclear core cooling systems could never fail. The nuclear industry promised it would be safe, but it was the cooling system of a reactor designed much like the Shippingport plant that did indeed fail 22 years later at Three Mile Island.

MAN: The Pennsylvania nuclear power plant faces what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission called the ultimate risk of a meltdown in the next few days, according to United Press International. An NRC spokesperson...

CURWOOD: Just 3 months after it went on line, on March 28, 1979, an inexpensive water valve failed on Unit 2. Before confused operators could sort things out, part of the core had melted, and radiation spilled out into the reactor building. Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburg tried to reassure the public.

THORNBURG: There is no cause for alarm, no threat to the health or food supplies in the area here. We regard the situation as being a stable one, under control.

CURWOOD: During the accident, government officials and general public utilities lost credibility with the public. The utility kept the accident at Three Mile Island secret for several hours, and then was evasive and ambiguous. The public became alarmed that the concrete containment dome might fail and release large amounts of radioactivity. Fortunately, it did not. It was a different story in 1986, when a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union, caught fire. At Chernobyl there were no containment buildings for the reactors, so tons of vaporized radioactive fuel went straight into the atmosphere. About 100 square miles of Belarus were rendered uninhabitable, and deadly radioactive plumes coursed around the world's jet streams. According to Harvard physicist Richard Wilson, the disaster will likely end up causing 20,000 cancer deaths worldwide. While that's a lot of people, it's a small number compared with the hazards of other ways of making electricity.

WILSON: Chernobyl produced once, throughout the whole world, less effects on health than is produced every year from coal plants.

CURWOOD: Coal plants produce more than half of all electric power in the US, and health researchers say particulate matter pollution from coal causes 20,000 to 40,000 deaths in the US every year. But the public perception of nuclear power is that of greater danger than coal or other polluting forms of generation, such as oil and gas, and opposition is strong.

CROWD: (Chanting and clapping) No Seabrook! No Seabrook! No Seabrook!

CURWOOD: In the 1970s and 80s, public attitudes had hardened so much against nuclear power that people got arrested at protests. In 1989 picketers came to New Hampshire's Seabrook station as it prepared to go on line for the first time. Activists questioned evacuation plans.

(Protesters in background)

MAN: The people of the sea coast are not willing to stand with their bags packed, ready to flee for their lives.

MAN 2: Why are they being arrested?

CURWOOD: Seabrook was one of the last US plants to go on a power grid. The domestic market had dried up, and manufacturers have had to look abroad, especially to Asia. And now they say they've come up with new designs that are both safer and cheaper.


CURWOOD: Inside a windowless cement building on the campus of Oregon State University in Corvallis is a quarter-size scale model of the AP-600, a new nuclear power plant designed by Westinghouse. A maze of stainless steel pipes and tanks run throughout the 3-story building. Nuclear engineering professor Jose Reyes points out a new safety feature.

REYES: This is one of our 2 core makeup tanks. This tank replaces several pumps in the conventional nuclear power plant. It's specifically designed for providing cold water to the core.

CURWOOD: Westinghouse engineers reduced the number of finicky pumps and valves and safety systems designed to keep the reactor cool. They claim these features make the AP-600 extremely safe and reliable. For example, a large tank is mounted above the reactor, so if the normal cooling fails an emergency supply of water is automatically dumped onto the hot fuel rods.

REYES: It uses gravity, natural circulation, pre-pressurized tanks in order to cool the core. So these features make it passably safe. We don't have to rely on electrical pumps to drive the flow to the core.

(Hissing sounds)

CURWOOD: Westinghouse Electric's Vice President for Science and Technology, Howard Bruschi, says this system is as good as it gets.

BRUSCHI: The AP-600 is designed such that even if there were a problem, as unlikely as it is, an operator could literally walk away. Because natural systems such as gravity will take over the whole operation.

CURWOOD: So you mean, if Homer Simpson were running the control panel and went out to have a beer, everything would be fine.

BRUSCHI: Not only would everything be fine, it might be preferable.

LIDSKY: Second-generation reactors are better than first-generation reactors. They're simpler, they're probably a little bit more economical. They're probably substantially safer. But they're still the same old same old.

CURWOOD: Lawrence Lidsky is a professor of nuclear engineering at MIT. Professor Lidsky says even these newer models share the same fatal flaw as the original Shippingport reactor and the one at Three Mile Island. If the fuel rods go dry, the fuel melts, and there could be a catastrophic accident. Professor Lidsky says nuclear power can be accident-proof, but manufacturers would have to scrap designs that use cores that are vulnerable to meltdown.

LIDSKY: There are designs that don't need the engineered safety systems. There are designs that are not limited by the fact that they use water as a coolant. There are designs that are inherently smaller, cheaper, safer, and easier to operate.

CURWOOD: Professor Lidsky spent a decade designing a reactor that can't melt down. It runs on tiny fuel pellets that physically can't get hot enough to melt or burn their casing. But manufacturers were uninterested. And just as he says the Federal Department of Energy agreed to build a test model of his ultra-safe reactor, it halted the research reactor program. Of course, basic reasons that attention has turned away from nuclear power are long construction times and money. Once a nuclear generator is up and running, it is cheap to operate, less than a half a cent per kilowatt hour. But getting it built is another matter. Thanks to regulations and the need to have redundant equipment to protect against meltdown, nuclear power stations can now cost more than a billion dollars to build and take up to a decade to construct. Contrast that with a new natural gas plant that costs less and goes up in just a couple of years. Doctor John Ahearne is a former commissioner of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

AHEARNE: I don't think anybody in the next 5 or 10 years is going to be thinking about building a reactor because it's so much more expensive than to build a gas turbine.

CURWOOD: When today's nuclear plants were built, utilities were monopolies with guaranteed and regulated profit margins. That's changed with nearly every state deregulating electricity production. Now that electric suppliers compete in a free market, they have to be thrifty. So for the moment, gas plants are the obvious choice in the US. In the still-regulated markets overseas, there are some prospects for more nuclear power, especially in Asian countries, including Korea, China, and Japan. But according to Christopher Flavin of the World Watch Institute, even these countries are having their doubts.

FLAVIN: Well, if you look to Asia, what you find is that in Japan, which is the dominant Asian market for nuclear power, the rate of construction has dramatically declined in response to public concern. And the market in South Korea has also slowed down rather dramatically.

CURWOOD: Even Westinghouse Electric Vice President Howard Bruschi admits the prospects for his industry are not bright.

BRUSCHI: It's not as bright as we would like it, that's for sure. The work in Asia, however, will provide us some base load of work, we expect. But it certainly is not what it used to be in the older days.

CURWOOD: Is this depressing? I mean waiting there by the phone to ring, you know, and no one seems to be buying things?

BRUSCHI: Well, depressing, we're a hopeful bunch, and we've worked very closely with utilities around the world to show that these designs are good, economical, and quite safe.



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