It has for 30 years and likely always will
The movie the China Syndrome and the accident at Three Mile Island are forever linked in American history. The movie was showing in theatres nationwide when the cooling pumps failed in Harrisburg, PA, on March 28, 1979. Cinematic visions of an over wrought Jane Fonda, paired with a young Michael Douglas and a hysterical Jack Lemmon, along with melting pools of nuclear fuel rods, are fused in the American imagination. The double tap of Hollywood's message from the movie and the reality of a real accident are frequently used as a blunt instrument to beat up any utility that announces it wants to build a new nuclear power plant.
The threats to the future of the nuclear industry aren’t over yet, and they aren’t always coming from the world views of Greenpeace or Hollywood. According to the New York Times, the lessons of TMI were apparently lost on the operators of the Davis-Besse plant in Oak Harbor, Ohio. In this case, the nuclear industry was its own worst enemy.
In 2002 FirstEnergy Corp (NYSE:FE) resisted shutting down the plant to check out a leak of acid laden water that eventually ate a hole in the concrete of the containment building. The firm paid a fine of $33.5 million and two technical staff at the plant were convicted of felony charges of willfully giving false data to the NRC. However, neither served any time in jail receiving fines and probation. The NRC itself reportedly didn’t press the utility very hard despite repeated warnings by its own inspectors.
This incident, occurring 25 years after TMI, should serve as a warning post to the industry that it still has bad operators that need stringent oversight. Relicensing troubles at Vermont Yankee, which bear a close resemblance to a demolition derby, are another clear signal. It should also be a warning in the new nuclear renaissance to keep amateurs out. See NRC Chairman Dale Klein’s now world famous 2007 “no bozos” speech on this subject.
Post TMI Traumatic Disorder
So where does that leave us today? Despite the reforms instituted by the nuclear industry, including the formation of INPO, and a mostly trouble free history,the American public still is happy to support nuclear industry so long as the reactor is in the next state over, preferably downwind. For example, California is still willing to try to develop energy colonies in Utah and Arizona rather than overturn its 30 year ban on new plants in the state.
Wisconsin may cave in to anti-nuclear hysteria and its legislature may vote to keep its ban on new nuclear plants even though it gets a lot of its electricity from three nuclear power plants in the state and one on its border in Illinois. Previous efforts to repeal the ban have failed. The current crop of environmental leaders in Wisconsin belittles nuclear energy calling it a “distraction” despite its very significant role in the state’s energy supply picture. In neighboring Minnesota that’s exactly what happened despite the best efforts of very credible people and a lobbyist from NEI.
The new Obama administration seems to be tone deaf on the issue of nuclear energy. Newly minted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu (left) is reportedly becoming more of a ‘chief science officer’ for the agency than a policy maker. The New York Times wrote an unflattering piece on March 22 that the Nobel Prize winning scientist is in over his head in the rough waters of Washington’s continuous tempest of energy debates. Political observers say that the administration’s real energy policy will be made in the White House by former EPA Administrator Carol Bowner.
Last month John Rowe, who heads Exelon (NYSE:EXC), the nation’s largest nuclear utility, told the National Governors Association he wasn’t going to waste any more political capital trying to get Congress to support additional loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants. That's a pretty clear signal of early frustration. Significantly, it comes from Obama's home state of Illinois which gets a huge percentage of its electricity from nuclear plants.
The challenge of renewable energy advocates
The Obama Administration seems to be smitten by the claims of advocates for green energy, ok “renewables,” that nuclear is not needed. This is a real head scratcher for me because 1000 MW solar and/or wind energy is not the same as 1000 MW of nuclear energy. It comes down to base load v. variable capacity.
Comparing apples to apples, 1000 MW of wind power has a 30% capacity factor versus 1000 MW of nuclear power with a 90% capacity factor. Capacity Factor is calculated by taking the plant's average production and dividing it by the number of hours in a year. What this means is that the nuclear plant produces three times the electricity of the solar or wind plant. Put another way, relying solely on renewable energy is like planning to have your lights out more often than not.
The battle over “renewables” v. nuclear is really a battle for investment capital. The nuclear industry is capital intensive so wind and solar firms see it as a zero-sum competitor on Wall Street, what’s left of it, for new investors. That’s why former VP Al Gore was hired by a venture capitalist firm and is now promoting solar and wind technologies for them. Al Gore's "moonshot speech" for wind and solar energy is an unattainable vision.
Taken another way, the reason coal-fired utilities feel threatened by the relicensing for construction of TVA’s Bellefonte plant is that their cash cows, some of which are fully depreciated assets, will have to compete with emission free nuclear energy plants once Congress eventually does something, likely in 2010, about carbon taxes and carbon cap-and-trade. In the meantime, arguments by green groups against new nuclear power plants are, de facto, testimony in favor of more coal fired plants because of the capacity factor issue.
Are there any bright spots?
There are thought and opinion leaders who are bringing a pro-nuclear message to the mainstream news media. This blog has also previously highlighted the writings of William Tucker and Gwyneth Cravens and their books on nuclear energy. It will take their books, and a lot more, to shape public opinion. The lasting legacy of TMI will resonate for a very long time.
Most recently, Todd Tucker (right), a former U.S Navy submarine officer, wrote an very accessible piece in the Washington Post called “Five Myths on Nuclear Power.” He spotlighted some of the irrational fears of nuclear energy and noted that reflex opposition by green groups was “quasi-religious.”
Most importantly, Todd Tucker says that debates about the future use of nuclear energy must take place in the same context as debates about the risks and rewards of other energy sources. If there is one thing the nuclear industry ought to do, that is it. Leveling the playing field in the court of public opinion for nuclear energy is a very daunting task. If the industry is planning on building a next generation of nuclear plants that will last for t60 years, it has better get cracking now.
The future of the nuclear industry also depends on how its trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, responds to TMI as a signature event every time it comes to a public hearing about a new nuclear plant or one to extend the license of an existing plant.
On this point it is clear the organization is headed in the right direction. See especially NEI CEO Marvin Fertel’s March 24 testimony to the Senate. It is a comprehensive review of what the industry has learned from TMI and how it works with those lessons today in the operations of the nation’s fleet of nuclear power plants. This testimony is evidence that the lasting legacy of TMI is one that the industry has taken to heart.
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