Twenty-five years after the United States suffered its
worst nuclear accident, the moribund atomic energy
industry has begun to show signs of life.
A consortium of seven of the biggest companies in the
business, including a division of British Nuclear
Fuels (BNFL), now says it intends to apply for the
first licence to build a commercial nuclear plant in
the US since the near disaster at Three Mile Island.
The consortium has not yet said where it intends to
construct the plant, only that it will spend millions
of dollars on developing the plans, at the invitation
of the government.
A series of mechanical malfunctions and human errors
led to a partial core meltdown at the Three Mile
Island reactor in Pennsylvania on March 28 1979,
causing it to spew plumes of radioactive gas into the
atmosphere. For five days there were fears of
The accident and the anxiety it caused, plus the
soaring costs of tighter safety regulations and the
availability of cheap, clean natural gas were enough
to halt the industry in its tracks. The final orders
for new nuclear-fired plants were placed in December
of that year. None ordered after 1973 was built.
Government officials say there was no effect on the
health of local people from the Three Mile accident.
The courts agreed: a class action lawsuit brought on
behalf of 2,000 people was dismissed in 1996.
But doubts remain. Recent data from the Radiation and
Public Health Project, a non-profit organisation,
suggests otherwise. The group claims infant mortality
in the local area increased by 47% in the two years
after the accident. It also says that, 25 years on,
cancer-related deaths among children under 10 are 30%
higher than the national average.
Still, broader sentiment appears to have changed as
America's thirst for energy continues to increase. A
number of factors are working in the nuclear
industry's favour. Power blackouts such as the one
that blanketed the north-eastern US last summer,
concerns about greenhouse gases from coal-fired plants
and the shortage of natural gas that is pushing prices
higher have combined to rehabilitate nuclear power.
The costs of operating nuclear power plants have
According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, the industry's future will depend upon its
ability to argue that nuclear power, which produces no
greenhouse emissions, is necessary to fight global
"The principal motivation to reconsider the nuclear
option is that nuclear power as an alternative to
fossil fuel resources does not impair air quality and
does not release greenhouse gases into the
atmosphere," said Professor John Deutch, of the MIT.
There are 103 commercial reactors still operating in
the US, generating about 20% of the nation's
electricity. The US accounts for almost a quarter of
the 435 nuclear power reactors in the world. The fleet
of reactors in the US is ageing, however, and many are
now applying for licences to extend their lives. By
the end of this year, a third of the existing plants,
built to last for 40 years, will have applied for
licences to continue operating for another 20.
The consortium put together to apply for the new plant
is made up of Exelon Nuclear, the largest operator in
the US, with 17 reactors; Entergy Nuclear, the second
largest US operator; Constellation Energy; the
Southern Company, and EDF International North America,
a unit of Electricit de France. General Electric and
Westinghouse Electric, a unit of BNFL, are the
So far, all they have committed to is spending tens of
millions of dollars of their own money as well as cash
from the government to design a plant. They hope to
submit an application by 2008 and have a decision from
the nuclear regulatory commission by 2010.
"To protect consumers against spiking energy prices
and for our own national security, we need to maintain
fuel diversity in the energy industry," said Chris
Crane, president and chief nuclear officer of Exelon
Nuclear. "Nuclear energy is safe, reliable and
non-carbon emitting. We must keep the nuclear option
open for the future."
The licensing system was streamlined in 1992 to allow
new plant to be built more quickly, but it has yet to
A number of utilities have applied for "early site
permits", part of the department of energy's programme
to breathe new life into the industry. Applicant
companies have 20 years to decide whether they want to
The Bush administration's stalled energy bill provides
incentives for nuclear power and seeks the extension
of liability against lawsuits in case of accidents.
The administration is eager to lessen America's
reliance on other countries for its energy needs,
particularly nations in the Middle East.
The industry cites statistics that it claims shows
reactors are safer than they have ever been. The
number of "scrams" - emergency shutdowns - has fallen
from 1.6 for each plant annually in 1990 to 0.4 in
But there have been worrying incidents. The Davis
Beese plant in Ohio run by FirstEnergy has been closed
since early 2002 after it was discovered that an
accumulation of acid had almost eaten through the
six-inch steel reactor vessel.
Two other obstacles loom large. The first is what to
do with nuclear waste. The second is what would happen
if plants were targeted by terrorists.
The government is developing a plan to bury nuclear
waste at Yucca mountain in Nevada, 90 miles north-west
of Las Vegas, but faces opposition from nearby
residents. The concerns don't stop there. Moving waste
across the country on trains is a security risk.
And New York residents note that one of the planes
that crashed into the World Trade Centre in 2001 flew
directly over the Indian Point plant on the Hudson
river, 35 miles from midtown Manhattan.