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    Live Discussion
    Nuclear Power Since Three Mile Island

    Tuesday, March 30, 1999

    The nuclear power industry has built no new plants in the United States since the partial meltdown at one of two reactors on Three Mile Island 20 years ago. Washington Post business reporter Martha M. Hamilton joined us live online today to discuss changes in the nuclear energy industry since the 1979 accident. Welcome, Martha. To start, how did the accident at Three Mile Island change the nuclear power business in the United States?

    Martha M. Hamilton: It drove a stake through the heart of any new construction. No new nuclear plants have been built since then in the United States. GPU, which owned Three Mile Island, had $425 million invested in construction of what was to be a new plant at the time and canceled it. Did Chernobyl have any impact on the U.S. nuclear industry, in terms of operations or public relations, or was the Soviet design so different that it did not have any effect here?

    Martha M. Hamilton: I'm not an expert on nuclear design. I don't know of any major changes occasioned by Chernobyl, although I imagine it prompted power plant operators to reexamine what they were doing. But there's a big difference between Chernobyl and other former Soviet Union nuclear plants and plants in the U.S., as I understand it. The plants here have containment vessels, such as the one that contained the damage at Three Mile Island. The plants in the former Soviet Union don't.

    Lutherville, MD: In your March 27 article, you stated: "The accident marked the end of nuclear power plant construction in the United States." I'm sure you meant to say that it marked the end of nuclear power plant ORDERS in the United States, because many plants under construction at the time were subsequently completed.

    My question is this: If the scientific community reaches consensus that new nuclear plants must be built in order to save our environment, will you and the rest of the responsible news media actively support that consensus, or will you undermine and weaken it through adverse coverage and/or indifference?

    Martha M. Hamilton: Thanks for including me among the "responsible news media." I doubt that responsible media would either support or oppose such a consensus. I trust we would report accurately that a consensus existed, if it did. And you're correct, some construction continued, it was orders that stopped. LILCO went ahead and built its Shoreham unit, for instance.

    Falls Church, VA: Why haven't we seen other incidents like Three Mile Island? Chernobyl aside, we seem to have been very lucky. Does that indicate that nuclear power is safer than has been hyped? Or have we just been incredibly lucky?

    Martha M. Hamilton: I expect the reason we haven't seen further Three Mile Islands is that the lessons from the mistakes of the operating personnel there were taken to heart by other operators in the U.S. It's probably a combination of luck, good operations, close regulatory supervision and, compared to Chernobyl, much, much safer design.

    Lake Placid, NY: An industry website article -- "TMI: Myths and Facts" -- finds that the TMI accident did not cause a decline in American's nuclear power industry since units previously licensed came on line. Please comment.

    Martha M. Hamilton: Some additional capacity came on line. Nuclear power produces about 20 percent of our electric power in the U.S. In the next 10 to 20 years, however, licenses will begin expiring. And, since the capacity built since the accident has been other than nuclear, I would guess that nuclear power's 20 percent share today is lower than it once was, if only slightly.

    Pittsburgh, PA: Recently the owners of the Oyster Creek Nuclear Station have announced that if they can't find a buyer for the plant, it is possible that it may be shut down and decommissioned as early as next year. What do you think the chances are that this will be the case. Also, do you see any other plants as potential for early retirement?

    Martha M. Hamilton: There are 103 nuclear power plants out there, and I don't think anyone who follows the industry believes they will all be sold. The estimates I have heard is that perhaps 20 to 50 will change hands. Generally speaking, selling power as a commodity is expected to be a low margin business, so only the most efficient plants with the best records are likely to be candidates for sale or relicensing.

    Pottsville, PA : Is there any proof of cancer related cases of young people living in the geographical area of TMI at the time of the accident and coming to light now?

    Martha M. Hamilton: This isn't my field of expertise, but based on what I have read, the accident didn't produce any residual damage to the environment or people who lived nearby.

    Vienna, VA: Many have said that the nuclear power industry got a raw deal from the TMI accident, which could have been resolved automatically by the built-in safety mechanisms if it weren't for meddling human intervention and error. No new nuclear power plants have been built here since TMI. Should we reconsider nuclear power generation as good source of energy?

    Martha M. Hamilton: It may have gotten a raw deal, but it doesn't seem likely that additional nuclear plants will be built in the U.S. The cost of building them now would be too high, I have been told. And while nuclear power is extremely clean in terms of emissions, as other technology is developed to produce cleaner power from other fuels, nuclear's environmental edge is being reduced.

    New York, NY: What a non-event that has been turned into a mythical disaster. There were reporters who couldn't even understand what the word nuclear means, scared out of their boots to be around a power plant that was just sitting there. No one ever died, nothing ever happened, but reporters kept questioning little kids demanding to know why they weren't afraid.

    The whole non-incident of course meant ultimately that while Europe enjoys cheap nuclear electrical power, we have to depend on coal and petroleum, which kills a hell of a lot more people every year than a nuclear plant ever would. Question: Just why do you keep scaring people about a "disaster" that never happened, in fact in which not one single person was killed, unlike the killing of coal miners and others the press forced the U.S. to take?

    Martha M. Hamilton: As someone whose father was a machinist in an oil refinery, I'm aware of the dangers in other industries. But I was also around at the time of Three Mile Island, and I wouldn't minimize people's very real fears. At the time of the incident, no one knew how far things might go, and that produced legitimate concern among people who lived nearby and among those responsible for the plants. I don't think the fear was a fabrication of the media. In the long run, though, the containment vessel worked as it should have. What does the recent sale of Three Mile Island's still-operational Unit 1 reactor signify?

    Martha M. Hamilton: It signifies that there are utility companies with expertise in running nuclear power plants who believe they can aggregate those facilities, reduce costs, increase efficiency and make money.

    Lancaster, PA : In September 1974, Unit 1 [at Three Mile Island] began running. When did the nuclear plant first begin being built? How long did it take and how much did it cost?

    Martha M. Hamilton: Good questions, but I don't know the history of the unit's construction. We're about halfway through our discussion on the nuclear power business with Post energy reporter Martha M. Hamilton. A number of readers have asked questions about the environmental impact of Three Mile Island. Information on that topic is available on our page on the accident's aftermath.

    Washington, DC: How safe are the nuclear power plants in existence? It's been more than 20 years since many were built. And as I recall from a PBS documentary on the subject, many were constructed during a nuclear plant building frenzy when plants went from blueprint designs to full-scale operational plants without any interim model testing, etc.

    Martha M. Hamilton: Again, this isn't my area of expertise, but I think the lack of incidents indicates that the plants are operated with a reasonable degree of safety. We have nuclear power plants in Maryland and Virginia that seem to operate without much public concern. Even if plants were built hastily at one point, I expect that Three Mile Island provoked vigorous re-examination of every plant in the country and retrofitting where necessary. Gov. Gilmore in Virginia just signed a new energy deregulation bill into law yesterday. Other states are already deregulating their power utilities. Can you explain the forces behind deregulation and how they will affect nuclear power?

    Martha M. Hamilton: One of the major forces behind deregulation is technology. New technology means that power plants can produce power more cheaply. They can also be built on a smaller scale. That means more players can get into the business. And it's part of a general wave of deregulation that has swept through the economy, changing the nature of airline travel, trucking and telephone service. The biggest advocates of deregulation are large industrial and commercial power users for whom saving a penny per kilowatt hour or more can add up. The rest of us can rely on a product developed in the wake of telephone deregulation -- voice mail, to prevent us from feeling compelled to jump up from the dinner table when the new power providers come telemarketing for our business.

    McLean, VA: Since the meltdown at Three Mile Island, and in light of Chernobyl, is the U.S. government continuing to work more closely in regulating the private nuclear industry? Also, do you see the U.S. government and the DOE as effective in their role in maintaining federal nuclear waste?

    Martha M. Hamilton: That's a good question. I expect government regulators have monitored the industry closely. And now, with the industry changing, you could argue that the fact that the plants have been well monitored and their operating and safety records documented, will be a plus for potential buyers. They'll know what they're getting.

    I haven't followed the controversy over private nuclear waste closely. I know DOE's plans for storing it at Yucca Mountain has been controversial. But I'm not knowledgeable about this issue.

    Lake Placid, NY: Have utility customers footed any part of the utility's costs associated with the accident? What was the cost? Cleanup? Compensation for economic losses? For injury claims? Is there a public record of total costs?

    Martha M. Hamilton: The customers served by Three Mile Island bore heavy costs for more expensive replacement power after the accident. I don't know what the cost of the cleanup was. I think some of the costs were spread among other utilities through an insurance plan, but I don't have a handle on who bore the brunt of the costs. GPU's shareholders bore some of it in lost dividends and lower stock prices. But Metropolitan Edison's customers paid rates that were twice as high for power after the accident than before.

    Arlington, VA: You and others cite the high cost of new nuclear power plants. I have seen industry estimates that much over half of the cost of a nuclear plant is litigation. What breakdowns of cost have you seen? Does today's litigious society prevent the use of a nearly emission free power technology?

    Martha M. Hamilton: I haven't seen a breakdown of the costs. I'm sure potential and actual litigation is a factor. But that's true, too, of other large power plants. That's one reason some buyers are interested in existing power plants -- so they don't have to go through the regulatory and legal battles that often surround construction of a new power plant. Remember the years of battles over Pepco's Dickinson plant in Montgomery County?

    Huntingtown, MD: What will it take to get the federal government to recognize nuclear plants do not emit the way fossils do and give either a tax or emission credit to level the competitive playing field?

    Martha M. Hamilton: That's a question that will be decided in whatever rules are written to begin implementing the Kyoto agreement or whatever rules are written to address the issue of global climate change outside of the Kyoto agreement.

    Washington, DC: Do you know where spent fuel rods and other wastes from nuclear power plants are stored -- buried or otherwise disposed of?

    Martha M. Hamilton: I think, and again, this is not my area of expertise, but I believe they are being stored on site now pending the opening of the DOE facility at Yucca Mountain.

    Sterling, VA: Was there a ban on nuclear reactors from being built?

    Martha M. Hamilton: There wasn't a ban, just a marketplace decision that in the wake of the accident that companies risked more than they expected to gain if they built additional plants. The risk being in financing costs, potential litigation, public perception etc.

    Six Mile, SC: What is the plan to replace the base generation load now supplied by nuclear if more nuclear facilities close?

    Martha M. Hamilton: There isn't a single plan, but there are companies who are buying existing power plants or building new ones that they believe can supply the market. There is also a move to what the industry calls "distributed power," which is smaller plants closer to the customers they serve. Natural gas looks likely to be the fuel of choice for power plants for the future. That was our last question for Martha Hamilton. We appreciate her time -- and thank you for your questions. As mentioned above, many of you had questions and comments about the health and environmental impact of the accident. One reader writes....

    Washington, DC: It seems like some people on your site are grossly misinformed. In fact there were elevated rates of lung cancer, to a lesser extent leukemia in the contamination plume after TMI. Both Dr. Hatch and Dr. Wing's studies reveal this. Additionally, chromosome damage exclusively due to radiation exposure confirm that local residents were exposed to much more radiation than either government or industry is willing to admit. There is a great debate in the scientific community about these and other studies like it. For details, please see our page on the accident's aftermath. Also see our readers' forum for memories or stories from the 1979 accident.

    Thank you for joining us. Other comments on this discussion:

    Charlottesville, VA: Just a comment on your last comment. There were NOT increases of ANY disease from the accident at TMI. This commentator is wrong -- and basing his "knowledge" on reports by anti-nuclear extremists. Same old boring conspiracy rhetoric.

    Pittsburgh, PA: Not so much a question but rather a comment. The person who commented from NY, NY on the press coverage of TMI brings up a very valid point. The media by in large does not do a very good job of accurately reporting news in the area of nuclear power. I recently read a newspaper article on the 20th anniversary of TMI in which the author did a terrible job of explaining technically how a pressurized water reactor and its safety systems work. It was quite clear this person had no idea what he was talking about but yet it appeared as a major article in a popular newspaper. With this kind of misinformation it's no wonder the public is confused on the subject of nuclear energy.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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