40 Years After A Partial Nuclear Meltdown, A New Push To Keep Three Mile Island Open | KCUR

40 Years After A Partial Nuclear Meltdown, A New Push To Keep Three Mile Island Open

Mar 28, 2019
Originally published on March 28, 2019 11:29 am

Forty years ago, the most serious nuclear accident in U.S. history sparked a backlash against the industry and halted its growth for decades. Today, the remaining working reactor at Three Mile Island, Unit 1, faces new challenges, including cheaper competition in a rapidly shifting energy grid. Unit 1 at the plant, near Harrisburg, Pa., is slated to close later this year.

But mounting concerns about climate change, and the need for zero-carbon power, are also driving a new push to keep Three Mile Island and other nuclear reactors open. It's a turnaround few would have foreseen in the chaotic days after the accident.

Confusion and fear

On March 28, 1979, Three Mile Island's Unit 2 reactor suffered a partial meltdown after a pump stopped sending water to the steam generators that removed heat from the reactor core. The accident was a combination of human error, design deficiencies and equipment failures.

The accident happened around 4 a.m. on a Wednesday, but it took several days before people understood the severity of the problem, as public officials struggled to explain what was happening. By Friday, then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh recommended that pregnant women and young children evacuate.

Jack Herbein, then vice president of generation for Metropolitan Edison, the company that operated Three Mile Island in 1979, takes questions from reporters outside the plant's visitors center the afternoon of the accident.
Courtesy of the Historical Society of Dauphin County

Many more people chose to leave. By the end of the weekend, an estimated 80,000 people had fled south-central Pennsylvania. Schools and businesses closed. Local banks started running out of cash.

Joyce Corradi was a young mother of four, running a day care out of her home in Middletown, a few miles from the plant. Her most vivid memory is pulling out of her driveway, wondering if her life would ever be the same.

"I took our marriage certificate and I took our children's birth certificates," Corradi says. "I was concerned that, if in the confusion things really got bad, that I could prove those were my children and that we could at least be together."

Reporters wait for updates outside the Three Mile Island Observation Center, across the street from the plant, after the partial meltdown in 1979. The accident quickly became global news.
Courtesy of The Historical Society of Dauphin County

She would return 10 days later. A small amount of radiation was released, but in the end, it wasn't a disaster. In 1985, Three Mile Island reopened, minus the one damaged reactor. Although some of her friends moved away, Corradi still lives in the same house, but feels the plant always looming in the background.

"It's kind of like living with a giant in your neighborhood," she says. "You know it's there. You know it could cause you problems, but you live in an uneasy compromise."

A new challenge to the nuclear industry

That compromise is being tested, as the nuclear industry faces new challenges, including high operating costs, stagnant demand for electricity and competition from cheaper natural gas and renewable energy.

Chicago-based Exelon, the current owner of Three Mile Island's still-functional Unit 1 reactor, says the plant has been losing money for years. The company plans to close it this fall, 15 years before its operating license expires.

David Fein, Exelon's senior vice president of state governmental and regulatory affairs, says the company is still hoping the state government can step in to keep it open. He argues that losing so much carbon-free electricity would be a major blow to efforts to combat climate change.

"It's something that, if we hope to do anything about it, then we have to preserve all the nation's nuclear power stations," says Fein.

Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. Yet across the country, nearly a third of existing nuclear plants are either unprofitable or scheduled to close.

There is only one nuclear plant under construction in the country, in Georgia, but it's years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Energy Secretary Rick Perry visited the construction site last week to announce $3.7 billion in federal loan guarantees for the project.

The working cooling towers of Exelon Generation Unit 1 in the foreground are emitting water vapor. The dormant cooling towers are from Unit 2, which was permanently damaged in the 1979 accident.
Courtesy of Exelon

Pennsylvania's five existing nuclear plants account for about 93 percent of the state's carbon-free power. Mark Szybist, a senior attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council, says that without new policies, nuclear plant closures could lead to more greenhouse gas emissions.

"We're at a point where if nuclear retires immediately, we would probably replace it with natural gas generation because we haven't sufficiently planned to replace it with something cleaner," he says.

Climate change and the push for zero-carbon energy

All of this has led to a big lobbying effort to keep nuclear plants online. In recent years, other states — including New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut — have given billions of dollars in subsidies to keep their nuclear plants open. Ohio is considering doing the same.

Christina Simeone, a senior fellow with the University of Pennsylvania's Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, thinks governments should step in.

"Once you close a nuclear plant, that's a permanent result," she says. "We're going to lose a significant amount of zero-carbon power."

If we lose one or more of these plants we might as well forget about all the time and money we've invested in wind and solar. - Thomas Mehaffie, Pennsylvania state representative

In addition to Three Mile Island, FirstEnergy's Beaver Valley plant near Pittsburgh is also slated for an early retirement — in 2021. Republican state Rep. Thomas Mehaffie recently introduced a bill to try to keep the Pennsylvania plants open.

"If we lose one or more of these plants we might as well forget about all the time and money we've invested in wind and solar," says Mehaffie.

But his bill faces major opposition, from groups like the growing natural gas industry, which stands to gain if nuclear plants close, and the AARP, which says the move would hurt ratepayers.

Carbon pricing

A report published last year by Pennsylvania's bipartisan Nuclear Energy Caucus called carbon pricing the best "long-term" solution for the state to address the economic woes of nuclear plants.

The regional grid operator for the Mid-Atlantic and parts of the Midwest, PJM, has also said putting a price on carbon is the best way for state governments to address the climate change concerns that have emerged amid their nuclear debates.

As someone who lived through the Three Mile Island accident, Joyce Corradi would be happier to see the plant close. But because the U.S. still has no real plan to deal with its radioactive nuclear waste, it will still be stored at the plant, sitting in her town indefinitely.

Even today, she avoids driving by the plant's large, gray cooling towers.

"I find that really, 40 years down the road," she says, "I'm still sitting on top of a plant that has all the waste, a plant that cannot sell its electricity, and there's still no real answers."

Copyright 2019 WITF. To see more, visit WITF.
Watch this documentary from WITF on Three Mile Island: The New Nuclear Dilemma
WITF / YouTube

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Forty years ago today, the United States experienced the worst nuclear accident in its history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE PINTEK: Met-Ed company officials had to shut down their Three Mile Island nuclear power station unit No. 2 this morning after an accident occurred within the plant's turbine system.

GREENE: The partial meltdown at the plant near Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979 sparked a major anti-nuclear backlash. The entire plant is finally set to close this fall, but environmentalists are actually now making a push to keep it and other nuclear power plants open.

Here's Marie Cusick from member station WITF.

MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: The Three Mile Island accident sparked confusion and fear, partly because public officials had such a hard time explaining what was happening. Two days after the meltdown, even the governor, Dick Thornburgh, struggled to answer basic questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK THORNBURGH: It is a very difficult thing to pin these facts down so that we can give you some kind of bundle of reliable information.

CUSICK: The accident happened on a Wednesday. And by the end of the weekend, an estimated 80,000 people had fled the area. Joyce Corradi was a young mother of four living a few miles from the plant. She says her most vivid memory is pulling out of her driveway wondering if her life would ever be the same.

JOYCE CORRADI: I took our marriage certificate, and I took our children's birth certificates. I was concerned that if in the confusion things really got bad that I could prove those were my children and that the - we could at least be together.

CUSICK: Although a small amount of radiation was released, in the end, it wasn't a disaster. In the 1980s, Three Mile Island reopened - minus the one damage reactor. Although some of her friends moved away, Corradi still lives in the same house but feels the plant always looming in the background.

CORRADI: It's kind of like living with a giant in your neighborhood. You know it's there. You know it could cause you problems, but you live in an uneasy compromise.

CUSICK: That compromise is being tested as the nuclear industry faces new challenges, like competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables. Exelon, which owns the plant's still-functional unit 1 reactor, says Three Mile Island has been losing money for years. The company plans to close the plant this fall. But Exelon's David Fein says losing so much carbon-free electricity would be a major blow to efforts to address climate change.

DAVID FEIN: It's something that, if we hope to do anything about it, then we have to preserve all the nation's nuclear stations.

CUSICK: Nuclear power plants provide about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. But across the country, nearly a third of existing nuclear plants are either unprofitable or scheduled to close. Mark Szybist with the Natural Resources Defense Council says without new policies, that could mean more greenhouse gas emissions.

MARK SZYBIST: We're at a point where, if nuclear retires immediately, we would probably replace it with natural gas generation because we haven't sufficiently planned to replace it with something cleaner.

CUSICK: All this has led to a big push to keep nuclear plants online. Other states, including New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut, have recently given billions of dollars in subsidies to keep their nuclear plants open. Christina Simeone with the University of Pennsylvania's Kleinman Center for Energy Policy thinks governments should step in.

CHRISTINA SIMEONE: Once you close a nuclear plant, that's a permanent result. We're going to lose a significant amount of zero-carbon power.

CUSICK: In Pennsylvania, Republican State Representative Thomas Mehaffie has introduced a bill to try to prevent Three Mile Island and another nuclear plant from retiring early.

TOM MEHAFFIE: If we lose one or more of these plants, we might as well just forget about all the time and money we've invested into wind and solar.

CUSICK: But the bill faces major opposition from groups like the growing natural gas industry, which stands to gain if nuclear plants close, and the AARP, which says the move would hurt ratepayers. As someone who lived through the Three Mile Island accident, Joyce Corradi would be happier to see the plant close. But because the U.S. still has no real plan to deal with its radioactive nuclear waste, it will be stored at the plant, sitting in her town indefinitely.

CORRADI: I find that, really, 40 years down the road, I'm still sitting on top of a plant that has all the waste, a plant that cannot sell its electricity. And there's still no real answers.

CUSICK: Even today, she avoids driving by the plant's large, gray cooling towers.

For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick in Harrisburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SEVEN MILE JOURNEY'S "THROUGH THE ALTER EGO JUSTIFICATIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.