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.