The curse of Three Mile Island

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
LAKA Foundation

As the nuclear era approaches the 30th anniversary of Three Mile Island’s (TMI) partial-core meltdown, the worst commercial nuclear accident in American history, nuclear energy nowadays even appears to be fashionable in certain European green circles these days. At the same time non-political social organizations and conservative groups oppose nuclear power for purely economical reasons. What have been the consequences of the Harrisburg accident aftermath for the nuclear industry and what are the prospects for nuclear power?

The US – until the accident, beginning on March 28 - was expecting to derive about 14 percent of its generating capacity from nuclear power stations in 1979. The US industry had begun confidently of taking new orders totaling 5,000 – 8,000 MW that year – more than any year since 1974. Instead, after ‘Harrisburg’ president Carter ordered an inquiry into the accident and said he would expedite efforts to expand the number of nuclear inspectors. But mid-April he added that “there is no way for us to abandon nuclear power in the foreseeable future,” reiterating his administration’s intention to introduce fresh legislation to accelerate the licensing of new nuclear plants. Intentions that were embedded in forecasts to build between 200 and 500 more nuclear power stations by the year 2000. The only thing on which Carter had been sure was to quit the fast breeder project, the last experimental one at Clinch River in Tennessee. Because of proliferation concerns, he was a consistent opponent of fast breeders. In a May 4, 1979 speech he called the Clinch River breeder reactor a technological dinosaur. Instead of investing public resources in the breeder demonstration project, he urged attention to improving the safety of existing nuclear technology. Finally, despite the fact that at the time of the TMI-accident, 17 utilities had applied to build 30 new nuclear plants in the United States, not a single nuclear power plant started construction in the US since the accident at Three Mile Island - 30 years ago this month.

When the world leading economy doesn’t build new nuclear power plants anymore, there isn’t any doubt that Harrisburg turned out to be disastrous for the nuclear industry. It is true that before the accident at Three Mile Island the great growth of nuclear plant ordering across the Western World in 1960s and 1970s had already slowed dramatically. In the United Sates the stagnancy started already in 1974. Projects were stopped and the building of new ones had been delayed. This was in fact mainly a correction on the too high expectations on the share of nuclear power on the grid in the future. The impact of Harrisburg on the Western World outside the US is, however, indisputable too. The accident boosted the growth of the anti-nuclear movement in Europe and nuclear power became a serious discussion issue within established political parties, leading to a strong public opinion against the continuing use of nuclear energy. In Sweden it had been clear that Harrisburg disturbed a political agreement to build 12 nuclear power plants. Harrisburg was a watershed in the development of nuclear energy. The then executive director of the International Energy Agency Ulf Lantzke admitted that dwindling public confidence was becoming a serious threat to nuclear growth.

Other modifying factors why all previous estimates on nuclear generating capacity for the year 1985 had been reduced step by step in the western world by the end of the 1970s was due to the much slower growth in energy demand in the slipstream of the 1973-74 oil crisis. This caused climbing construction costs and high interest rates, meaning a poor climate for capital investment. Only France and states with dictatorships built their nuclear power stations fast. From 1979 to 1982 France spent US$3bn a year on nuclear power plants and was put into service every two months (18 to be precise). For comparison: construction started of only 17 reactors after 1982 in France and of those only 5 reactors were ordered after 1982 (including the Flamanville EPR). The building of new plants was delayed in Germany, Scandinavia, and in America. But in Russia, in Iran, in South Korea they sprung up. Despite this continuing use of nuclear energy, the TMI accident was a turning point for the nuclear industry. The infamous accident and its once unthinkable partial meltdown of the reactor core brought new construction of nuclear power plants in the US to a grinding halt. Or not?

New nuclear power plants in the US?

Currently there are 17 applications for 26 nuclear plants under consideration. Recently, Oklahoma House lawmakers passed a nuclear power bill, 26 years after Public Service Company of Oklahoma proposed the Black Fox nuclear power plant in eastern Oklahoma, which was abandoned after nine years of protests. The proposal is supported by Republican House leaders that emphasize alternative forms of energy, among which they include nuclear, as a way to ease the state and nation’s dependence on foreign energy sources. Among other things, the measure establishes a review process for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to consider nuclear power proposals and creates a task force to consider tax changes that would encourage construction of a plant in Oklahoma.

Opponents said the huge cost of a nuclear power plant, estimated at between US$6 bn and US$10 bn, would mean customer rates would rise significantly to help pay for the plant. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which publicly opposes the plan, has said consumer rate increases of 20 to 40 per cent are possible, based on an analysis of similar legislation in other states. Officials of the senior advocacy group said Oklahoma's elderly residents are struggling just to pay their medical and prescription drug costs and that raising electric rates during a bad economy is a bad idea. Today there are 104 nuclear power plants in the US in 34 states, but none in Oklahoma.

The question can be raised how much will remain of the current plans to build nuclear power plants. Since the early years of this century there is much talk about the resurrection of the nuclear industry. Up to now, however, there isn’t any sign of it. Even the pro-nuclear NEI Magazine sounds pessimistically. In his article “Will nuclear rebound?” Chris Gadomski, the managing editor of Nuclear, New Energy Finance, voiced the unrest within the US nuclear lobby about Obama’s views on nuclear power with descriptions as “not optimal” or “not a nuclear energy proponent”, and of course his budget cuts for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility.

Necessity to build new coalitions?

The position against nuclear energy of a non-political organization as AARP makes clear that the established groups against nuclear energy can make use of that.

While some leading (European) environmentalists have become pro-nuclear, because they are of the opinion that nuclear energy is a necessary source of energy in the struggle against climate change, there are American conservatives against nuclear energy because of economical reasons. Something that has become clear at a recent panel on nuclear energy in Harrisburg. Two speakers at opposite ends of the political spectrum took the floor at a Commonwealth Foundation panel on nuclear power. Eric Epstein, chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, a group that advocates for alternatives to nuclear power, and Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, an authoritative Washington based conservative think-tank, for whom it’s purely a matter of economics. There is, however, not so much difference in the outcome of their different reasoning. Epstein explained - before the meltdown of unit 2 - the extreme over budgeting and delayed completions of the two TMI reactors. The construction of the first TMI unit, started in 1968, concluded two year behind schedule before it was put into service in 1974, while the costs had been risen from US$183m to US400m. The second TMI unit was completed five years behind schedule while the expenses were more than three times the original estimated costs, US$700m instead of US$206m. The reactor operated just three months when the accident happened. Epstein estimated the total cleanup costs at US$805m and noted that the electricity ratepayers mainly pay this bill.

Many would expect that a vast majority of the public identify Epstein’s view on nuclear power skeptically, the view of a ‘labor democrat’. But Jerry Taylor, who is advocating smaller government and freer markets, has taken much the same view, though citing different reasons for a no-nuke stance. “Whenever they have been asked the markets have said ‘no’ to nuclear power,” he said, stating that it serves roughly 20 per cent of America’s energy needs, a statistic he blamed to its strong subsidization. While many policymakers have debated changing of regulations to allow the construction of new power stations, Mr. Taylor said, the real barrier is the cost to build them. Currently one new plant costs between US$6 million and US$9 million to build, he said. Even with large subsidies, investors have been unwilling to take a chance, according to Taylor. He said he personally was neutral on nuclear power, however, as long as it is not economically viable he doesn’t see any reason to go on with this. A regional newspaper quoted: “In Finland, where the first privately funded new nuclear plant in decades is being built, construction is two years behind schedule and 60 per cent over budget. Nuclear plants continue to be built in places like France, China and India because they are dictated by the government, not investors, said Taylor.” (But, he is optimistic about that, too).


In order to stop the new rise of fallacies that nuclear power is a solution to overcome the climate change the remains of the old anti-nuclear movement has to build new coalitions, though the political views of some groups might be totally different, if groups can deal with each other in a pragmatic way as long as their interests coincide in the field of nuclear power there’s nothing wrong to align with them. For instance with conservatives (Cato) or non-political groups as AARP.

If the current economical crisis is deepening, however, the choice for nuclear power might evaporate by oneself. As noted above the dramatic slowdown of nuclear ordering by the end of the 1970s was due to a complex mixture of factors in which the oil crisis played a dominant role. The same was true in the 1980s. Since the late 1980s worldwide capacity has risen much more slowly, from 300 GW in the late 1980s to 366 GW in 2005. This happened again in the slipstream of an economical crisis mixed up with the political results of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Though in general you can’t say that the current crisis is the same as the crises before, however for energy use you certainly can. The current economy is shrinking very fast. Moreover, a whole battery of scientists and economist are predicting crises in the short term that are orders of magnitude larger than the current one, of which it is still not yet clear how long it will last.

No time to waste (money)!

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose societies make a clear choice for nuclear power. What if there will be a nuclear accident comparable with Three Mile Island or Chernobyl in let's say 2017? Due to economics (nuclear companies will face huge losses and bankruptcy) and reviving popular resistance all proposed project will be cancelled; half or three quarter of the projects of which construction already started will be abandoned and even countries which rely on nuclear energy (like Italy after Chernobyl) will phase out nuclear.

All the money available (and necessary) in the coming decade to combat climate change has been wasted on nuclear energy, which is not even a solution for climate change in the first place! Remember: every coin can be only spent one time.


  • De Volkskrant (NL), 9 October 1974 / The Economist, 19 March, 1977 / Financial Times, 19 April, 1979 / Financial Times, 4 February 1981 / The Bulletin, March 12, 2009 (Pennsylvania) / Lancaster New Era, 12 March, 2009 (Pennsylvania) / AP, 13 March, 2009 / World Nuclear Industry Handbook / Graphic from Energy Watch Group paper: Uranium-Resources-Nuclear Energy

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