The Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant – America's own Chernobyl — in Central Pennsylvania, which was deemed the worst nuclear accident in the country 40 years ago, is set to be shut down. While the TMI continues to hold the damning classification in 2019, the debate around nuclear energy has changed significantly since the accident.
Nuclear power is one of the cleanest energy sources available today at a time when global warming is becoming a mounting concern worldwide.
On March 28, 1978, in Pennsylvania's Dauphin County, one of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station’s two reactors partially melted down, releasing toxic radiation into the air. The accident reportedly occurred due to mechanical or electrical failure. No one died or was injured in the accident but some studies have linked certain cancer cases in the region to the mishap. Most studies, however, have not found conclusive evidence that the accident resulted in long-term health problems. Regardless, the TMI accident in the United States became a potent symbol of the risks of nuclear power.
With the TMI nuclear plant shutting down this fall owing to financial crunch, there are experts contesting the decision and advocating federal subsidies be supplanted to nuclear power for being a major source of clean energy and electric grid reliability.
Exelon, the owner of the TMI nuclear station, on May 8, announced that it will shut site operations beginning in September as it has been losing millions of dollars per year. The firm had sought significant subsidies or policy changes in Harrisburg for the plant to be economically viable. However, proposals suggesting nuclear power subsidies in Pennsylvania found little traction in the Capitol.
"TMI should not be shut down, but the reasons why go beyond the global warming issue," James Miller, Professor at the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, Virginia Commonwealth University, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).
"A more imminent and far more consequential threat than global warming is that of the reliability and resiliency of the electrical power grid," he said. "Grid reliability depends on the maintenance of a delicate balance between electricity demand and supply. Failure to do so can lead to blackouts. The larger the blackout, the more difficult it becomes and the longer it takes to restore power. Little has been done to protect the grid from catastrophic blackouts."
Miller spoke against the reliability of wind and solar energy, suggesting that adding more of such energy would make the grid more susceptible to collapse. The professor also said that the resulting blackout because of the unreliable energy source in the grid could result in catastrophic human disaster, nearly comparable to the adverse effects of a major war.
"Nuclear plants promote both grid reliability and resiliency. When it comes to providing electricity, minimizing cost is far less important than providing dependable power. The consequences of a large and long power blackout could result in a catastrophic human and economic disaster on par with that of a major war," he said.
The Pennsylvania government is set to make more use of natural gas instead for electricity production in the state. Miller, however, said that overreliance on energy sources like natural gas could end up endangering the grid further. He added that nuclear power sources should be provided premiums by the state or federal agencies when necessary.
"Unlike coal and nuclear power plants, natural gas plants store no fuel on site. Hence, either the failure of a major gas supply line or insufficient transport of gas to meet the demand would immediately limit power production. In this regard, overreliance on natural gas further endangers the grid," the professor said.
When asked about the prevalent concerns of the safety of nuclear power, given TMI's accident disaster and tragedies like the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident, the professor said that the industry has learned from its past mistakes and has the best safety records in terms of per kWh of energy produced.
Talking of the lessons learned from the TMI accident, Miller said: "The American nuclear industry created an industry group, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations, tasked with enhancing to high levels both the safe operation and reliability of commercial nuclear reactors. Reactor operator training and knowledge underwent a significant ramp up, especially through the installation and use of reactor simulators at all US commercial plants."
"It's ironic that the three most significant commercial nuclear power accidents, TMI, Fukushima, and Chernobyl, provide further evidence in support of this. For example, no members of the public were harmed by either the TMI and Fukushima events. Best estimates are that Chernobyl, a plant that would never have been permitted to operate in the West, will result in the death of about 200 people. Numerous pipeline and oil rig explosions have resulted in overall far more fatalities, not to mention the collapse of hydroelectric dams. The worst energy-related accident in history was the 1975 collapse of the Banqiao hydroelectric dam in China that killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 people"
Although direct casualties associated with the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion were limited, studies have shown that the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster have proved to be far-reaching. The Chernobyl Union of Ukraine, a group created by the disaster's victims, has said that the long-term death number linked to the disaster is closer to 845,000.
Considering nuclear energy advocates have touted nuclear energy to be one of the safest, cleanest and most practical forms of power generation today, Pennsylvania lawmakers should pay attention to the advocates' arguments, particularly at a time when we have started witnessing catastrophic effects of global warming due to greenhouse gas emissions.
The state of Pennsylvania, which is lagging behind other states in combating climate change, is currently witnessing a push from nuclear industry advocates on its credentials of being a clean energy source. According to recent bipartisan state legislative caucus report's findings on nuclear energy, nuclear plants in Pennsylvania produce more than 93 percent of the state’s emission-free energy and prevent the release of more than 37 million metric tons of carbon emissions on an annual basis.