Lessons from Three Mile Island linger in a world going green

Jim Melwert
March 29, 2019 - 5:00 am
Three Mile Island

Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

Part 5 of a five-part series. In 1979, a small town just outside Harrisburg was the focus of the world, trying to understand what was happening at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. In the final installment this series, we look ahead to the future of nuclear power. 

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — As government officials scrambled to comprehend what happened inside the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, Richard Maloney recalled a time when the idea of nuclear energy was first introduced.

"When nuclear energy was first proposed and the first reactors were beginning in the '50s and the '60s, they were being touted as it was going to be free energy," said Maloney, who was part of the team of KYW Newsradio reporters covering Three Mile Island.

When he was in the Navy, he spent time on a nuclear sub, so while he had a basic understanding of the technology, he said he also had what he describes as an overconfidence in the ability to contain a nuclear reactor.

"I think of it as the Titanic syndrome," he said, "where engineering egos went further than the engineering realities."

As we mark four decades since the worst nuclear accident on U.S. soil, the nuclear industry is at a crossroads.

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Exelon, Three Mile Island's current owner, said they’ll begin the process of shutting down Three Mile Island if the state doesn’t kick in some cash. Other plants across the state could follow as utilities turn to cheap natural gas.

Republican state Rep. Tom Mehaffie is sponsor of a bill that would essentially allow nuclear plants to qualify for credits given to carbon-free, or so-called "green," energy.

"If we fail to act and these plants close, our consumers will be paying higher rates in the long term than if we pass legislation and keep them open," he explained.

Gregory Jaczko was chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under the Obama administration. He's also the author of the book "Confessions of a Rogue Nuclear Regulator."

"I see these things happening at the state level," he continued, "and I think that really isn’t an effort at climate change. It’s really more an effort to preserve these nuclear units and to continue to make money off them."

He said Three Mile Island forced the industry to realize they didn’t know what they thought they knew.

"Three Mile Island was really this wake-up call for the industry that, in fact, accidents were a real phenomenon. We didn’t really understand the technology when it was first created, and we misjudged how hard it would be or how easy it was to keep the plants from having these accidents."

After the Fukushima meltdown in Japan in 2011, Jaczko said he saw firsthand how many people were uprooted and the incredible effect it had on Japan’s economy.

"That, to me, is something we should not tolerate from power plants that are just there to generate electricity," he added.

However, in the push to generate more electricity without pushing out more carbon, many people point to nuclear as the most viable option.

And not all nuclear generating plants in Pennsylvania are in trouble. Limerick in Montgomery County is projected to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars without a subsidy.

Supporters also point to the jobs and local economies around the plants.

They also note that building new plants is proving to be prohibitively expensive — tens of billions of dollars — so it would be wise to protect the ones we already have.

Either way, the proposed legislation is sparking quite a battle.