Exactly 30 years ago this Saturday, a stuck cooling valve and faulty control-room instruments at Three Mile Island caused a partial meltdown of the core of one of the site’s two nuclear reactors. The accident didn’t kill or even harm anyone. Yet the U.S. nuclear industry continues to pay an enormous price three decades later. It’s time to acknowledge—and embrace—the realities of nuclear power. In an age of increasing worries about climate change, nuclear power is the only technology capable of generating the large volumes of power our economy requires while emitting no pollution or greenhouse gases. And it does so safely, contrary to the hysterical reports that have dogged the nuclear industry since the accident.

In the wake of the Three Mile Island accident—and partly because of the strong antinuclear sentiment it generated—utilities canceled as many as 64 planned nuclear-reactor units at various stages in the permitting and construction process. The industry ground to a virtual halt: we haven’t seen a single nuclear plant proposed, licensed, and constructed in the intervening years.

The environmentalists who helped thwart nuclear power after the accident, and who now agitate for “green” energy sources like wind turbines and solar power, would be wise to consider a few numbers. Those 64 planned nuclear reactors would have been capable of generating more than 500 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, which would have helped avoid about 465 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, putting us well on the way to meeting the emissions reductions goals under the Kyoto Protocol that Bill Clinton signed. No offense to wind and solar, but they simply aren’t in the same league. Today’s typical commercial nuclear reactor generates 1,000 megawatts of electricity and occupies perhaps 250 acres. To get the same amount of energy from wind would require 60,000 acres of 50-story-high wind turbines. The equivalent solar farm would need 11,000 acres. And even then, these technologies can’t generate power around the clock—as nuclear can—because, well, the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine.

Nuclear power is safe, too. The realization after the accident that, as one executive of the industry’s trade group puts it, “with nuclear energy, an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere,” prompted a thorough overhauling of how nuclear plants were run and a renewed commitment to safety. The 40 licensed operators currently at Three Mile Island’s remaining reactor, for example, spend one week out of every six in training, and they’re routinely retested according to NRC regulations. The result has been unqualified success in terms of safety and efficiency at the plant. Its operators boast of having set four separate world records for continuous days of operation.

Public opinion has shifted considerably in favor of nuclear power in recent years. A new Gallup poll finds that 59 percent of Americans support nuclear power, 27 percent “strongly.” That sentiment is reflected in the cautious optimism of utilities expressing interest in building new reactors. The NRC has fielded license applications to build more than two dozen new reactors in the coming years. If all are built, the nuclear industry predicts the creation of 100,000 additional jobs—real “green” jobs not dependent on government stimulus.

Thirty years is a long time, especially in an era of technological breakthroughs. The Three Mile Island accident took place at a time of bell bottoms, Studio 54, and wonderment over things like pocket calculators and cassette recorders. Like most technologies, nuclear power has improved substantially since then. It’s time to end the nuclear industry’s long captivity—and start building new reactors.


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