In the March 2008 issue of Gentlemen's Quarterly, Wyl S. Hylton wrote a great, balanced piece on the current state of the nuclear industry. His main topics centered around the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania and Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Below are some highlights (bold edits are mine).
On Three Mile Island:
Over the past ten years, the plant [Three Mile Island] has become famous for its constancy, setting records for continuous operation. The latest, among more than 250 similar reactors worldwide, was 689 days without pause or fail.On Yucca Mountain:
What all this amounts to, in a typical year, is about 7.2 million megawatt hours of electricity, or enough to satisfy the needs of 800,000 homes. By way of comparison, to produce the same amount of electricity, a coal-fired power plant would have to incinerate more than 3 million metric tons of fuel, producing 500 pounds of carbon dioxide per second, as well as 1,200 pounds of ash per minute and 750 pounds of sulfur dioxide every five minutes. Looking at the cooling towers with that in mind, where a smokestack would be at any of the nation’s 600 coal plants, it is easy to appreciate the lure of nuclear power: The carbon footprint of a nuclear plant is precisely…nothing.
At Three Mile Island, according to a 1980 inquiry by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the maximum level of radiation that anybody within a fifty-mile radius could have received from the accident was about 100 millirems—the equivalent of moving to Colorado for a year, or into a brick house for two. According to another study, by the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Environmental Resources, among 721 locals tested, not a single one showed radiation exposure above normal. A similar study by the state’s Department of Agriculture found no significant trace of radiation in the local fish, water, or dairy products, which tend to register minute impurities. And a study released in 2000 by the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh found that, twenty-one years after the accident, there was still no evidence of “any -measurable impact” on public health."
Given the extreme scale of the meltdown at TMI—including an explosion of hydrogen, the liquefaction of radioactive uranium, and the release of a plume of radioactive gas into the air outside—it is reasonable to conclude that the lesson of Three Mile Island is not merely a matter of what went wrong at the plant but also an example of what went right. For so many people and so many systems to fail so spectacularly all at once, without any measurable effect on public health, may be the last, best proof that a system is working.
After $10 billion in development costs and thirty years of observation, it is safe to say that Yucca Mountain has become the most expensive, examined, and—so far, anyway—useless hunk of rock on earth.On nuclear:
As we drove back toward Las Vegas, Voegele was mostly silent, but when we crested the final hill above the city, he spoke up. “There is an ethical dilemma at Yucca Mountain,” he admitted. “When Jimmy Carter was president, he said that our generation created this waste and we shouldn’t push it to future generations. That’s a very noble thing to say. But the fact is, we have to be careful how we interpret that. We have taken that to mean that Yucca Mountain has to last forever—we can’t expect future generations to fix anything or improve anything, ever. Well, that’s the wrong way to look at it. We should do the best we can right now, but no matter what we do, future generations will be able to change things at Yucca Mountain, they will have more knowledge and experience than we do, and they will probably want to change the system we create. They can do any number of things. They can move the material somewhere else; they can store it in a different way; they can change its chemical composition or reduce the radioactivity with methods we don’t know about. But right now, we don’t have any better options. We can’t leave this waste at the power plants forever. And we’re not going to find another repository without running into the same problems we have now. The bottom line is, Yucca Mountain is the best option we have. If we don’t use it, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Without new nuclear plants, for example, the American power supply will not simply remain as it is; as time passes and nuclear plants grow older, we will have to choose between extending licenses to those plants, far beyond their intended life expectancy, or else closing them and increasing our dependence on fossil fuels.
And when we fail to consider each of these issues with reason instead of fear, when we fail to make the tough comparison between nuclear power, with its potential for disaster, and coal plants, with their guarantee of it, this isn’t a reflection that we have no choices but that we refuse to make them.
It may be, more than anything else, an example of democracy working and failing at the same time.