It was the near-disaster that scared a nation. A quarter century ago this week, a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island underwent a partial meltdown. No one was killed and only a small amount of radioactivity escaped. But since that time, no American utility has dared to build a brand new nuclear power plant.
But the accident near Middletown, Pa., has faded from public memory. And power blackouts, rising natural-gas prices, and concerns about greenhouse gases have changed public attitudes. Here and there, the nuclear industry is beginning to stir.
Today, a fifth of the United States' electricity comes from 103 commercial nuclear reactors.
The most visible evidence of new interest remains invisible to most. "It's hard to tell from the outside," says William Baxter, one of three directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority. But inside TVA's massive concrete plant in Browns Ferry, Ala., a $1.8 billion construction project is under way to modernize and upgrade a reactor that hasn't been operating for nearly 20 years. If the project is completed by 2007, as expected, Unit I of Browns Ferry would become America's first nuclear power unit brought online in the 21st century.
Meanwhile, Chicago-based Exelon has been buying up nuclear plants to become the largest operator of nuclear power in the nation. As its plants have reached the end of their regulatory life, the company has successfully convinced the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to renew the licenses. In all, Exelon and other utilities have received 20-year license extensions for 23 plants and are seeking renewal for 19 other reactors.
In 2000, Exelon bought Three Mile Island with its remaining undamaged unit still churning out power and the damaged unit still "cooling down" - gradually losing radioactivity - within its protective containment building.
The NRC operating license for Unit 1 at Three Mile Island is good until 2014. If all goes well, that license could be extended 20 years, notes Craig Nesbit, a company spokesman. The shuttered plant could remain until the end of that period and then be dismantled.
Along with two other utilities, Exelon is also testing out a new NRC "early site-permit application" for a new plant. In Exelon's case, it's making the application for a new plant at its existing Clinton nuclear power station in central Illinois. The procedures regarding safety and environment could take 2-1/2 years. That application doesn't mean Exelon has firmly decided to build the first new nuclear plant since the Three Mile Island accident. Exelon first would have to see a new plant, perhaps costing $2 billion for two units, as economically feasible.
"We are not there yet," says Mr. Nesbit. "It's not likely for a few years."
The business case for nuclear power is getting easier to make. Within recent years, existing nuclear power plants have become desirable sources of electricity because of their relatively reliable production of emission-free, low-cost power. According to Mr. Baxter, TVA nuclear power costs 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 4.5 cents for coal and 6 cents for natural gas.
"We are laying the foundational work with an eye for a new order in three or four years," says Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington.
Could a Three Mile Island happen again? The NRC blames that accident on "a combination of personnel error, design deficiencies, and component failures." The event, adds an NRC fact sheet, led to "permanent and sweeping changes in how NRC regulates its licensees - which, in turn, has reduced the risk to public health and safety."
David Lockbaum, an engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, agrees that the NRC has become much tougher, even before 9/11 raised the specter of terrorists flying a jet into a nuclear power plant. Instead of inspecting nuclear plants every two years for four safety categories, the NRC since April 2000 has been looking them over every three months for 26 or so safety factors.
"When performance starts to fall, it should show up sooner," says Mr. Lockbaum, a longtime campaigner for reducing the risks of nuclear power.
In addition, nuclear power-plant owners have dramatically stepped up their security measures since 9/11. "We are spending several million dollars more per year," says Baxter of TVA. Guards are heavily armed at its three plants. The "setback" around the plants has been enlarged to protect them from truck bombs.
Westinghouse, which has made or licensed about 200 of the 435 nuclear power reactors operating in the world, hopes a new order is sooner rather than later. With federal government encouragement, it has designed one of three new "advanced passive" generation reactors. The company hopes for NRC approval of the design by the end of the year.
"It's designed to be a hundred times safer than existing plants," says a Westinghouse spokesman. In an emergency, even without plant operators, the pressurized-water reactor would shut itself down.
But some critics of nuclear power will not be satisfied with such assurances, promising to fight any application for a new plant.