President Obama's move to revive nuclear power, with $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees for two reactors in Georgia, has special resonance for those of us who experienced the Three Mile Island nuclear scare. In retrospect, the T-shirts that said "I Survived TMI" were overly dramatic. But at the time it didn't seem that way -- which may be why I'm deeply ambivalent about the second coming of nukes.
In March 1979, I was in my 20s, the only woman among five reporters in the cramped Associated Press bureau at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. And I was a newcomer. I had been there just six weeks when the report came in that state troopers had shut down a reactor in Middletown, about 10 miles down the Susquehanna River.
It was the start of a terrifying few days during which we all learned phrases like "partial core meltdown" and "fuel rods" and "containment building."
Some of the first foreign journalists to arrive were from Japan, evoking the spectacularly un-reassuring memory of the A-bomb and rampant radiation sickness. But then, nothing at the time was reassuring. The AP sent in radiation suits and drew up a helicopter evacuation plan. I was to be on the first flight out; the hope was to preserve my ability to bear children.
It never came to that (and a few years later I had two sons). Still, there were surreal and heart-pounding moments that remain vivid today.
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I remember driving through Middletown in unseasonably warm weather a day or two after the episode began, my car window wide open. Suddenly a radio announcer barked an emergency warning: Bursts of radiation coming from the plant! Close your windows! Stay indoors! I closed the window and tried not to panic.
I remember the Hersheypark Arena evacuation center, teeming with pregnant women, preschool children and out-of-town media. I remember going to see "The China Syndrome," a film about a core meltdown at a nuclear plant, during the TMI siege -- and the gasps throughout the theater when one of the characters said a meltdown could contaminate an area "the size of the state of Pennsylvania."
There was the celebrity-packed 1979 No Nukes concert in Washington. I attended as a private citizen (wearing a Solar Power T-shirt, it can now be told) and saw John Hall of the band Orleans lead an all-star chorus of "Power," an ode to "the warm power of the sun" and a protest of "atomic poison power" (get the full flavor of the moment in this YouTube clip
). There was also the modest Harrisburg version of the Gridiron Show, where journalists poke fun at the powerful. We pranksters rewrote Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now
to parody then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh's positions on nuclear power.
The more serious aftermath of TMI included lawsuits, cancer scares, years of debate over who should pay for the billion-dollar cleanup, and the dramatic moment when cleanup workers in space suits would enter the containment building for the first time. It was before cell phones and laptops. Reporters skirmished angrily over two available landlines (yes, I was one of them) and one poor guy -- who wasn't at the scene -- sent out a bulletin from his office trumpeting the milestone. Except the door had stuck and no workers got inside that day. Seven years later came Chernobyl, the nuclear meltdown that forced the evacuation of more than 336,000 people and is ultimately expected to kill 4,000
Given all that, it's not surprising that nuclear power has been on hold in the United States since TMI, with 104 plants supplying about 20 percent of U.S. electricity. But nor is it surprising that it seems poised for a comeback. Last year, Gallup found that 59 percent of the public favored nuclear power
. The industry has been far more focused on safety since TMI, both in procedures and design.
External factors also have changed. There was no alarm in 1979 about global warming or the fossil fuels that contribute to it. Gasoline had not gone to $4 a gallon. And the nations selling us oil were not potential nuclear foes or havens for suicidal terrorist attackers. "Those who had misgivings about nuclear power had a clear path to raise them in a vacuum," absent the concerns we have now, Thornburgh told me. He said the 30-year, post-TMI debate "has been overtaken by events."
Thornburgh came into office 72 days before the accident and gave a harrowing account of his experience last year at a 30th anniversary observance hosted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Anybody who went through that period of time there has some residual concerns," he told me. But he said that as a practical matter, the country needs more nuclear power in its energy mix. "If it is really unsafe and undesirable, you ought to dismantle all the plants that are out there now," Thornburgh said. "Nobody's suggesting that."
What about some of the other players from the TMI era? John Hall, the "No Nukes" musician, is now a congressman from upstate New York and he's still fighting nuclear power
. W. Wilson Goode, a former Philadelphia mayor who now works with children
whose parents are in prison, is another opponent. He was chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission when it had to figure out how much, if anything, utility customers should pay for the accident cleanup.
Goode says his views were shaped by the concerns of people living around the plant and "the almost reckless ways" that the utility management dealt with the accident. "Every nuclear plant we build, we run a risk of a catastrophe at some point ... that cannot be controlled," he told me. "No one has yet convinced me that it is something we can make safe. And the fact is they're easy targets for terrorists."
Thomas Cochran, a senior scientist in the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, advised the NRC on the TMI cleanup and a law firm on how to spend $5 million from a successful class action lawsuit (they did cancer studies and installed radiation monitors near TMI). He says federal help to the nuclear industry -- on proliferation, risk insurance, waste disposal and now loan guarantees -- is giving an unwarranted financial edge to huge plants that take 10 years of lead time to plan and build. It's especially galling to Cochran that Obama is selling nuclear power
as a way to cut carbon pollution and slow climate change.
"It's not a good idea for the government to go around subsidizing uneconomical technology," Cochran told me. "You're in effect putting your thumb on the scale and penalizing technologies that provide climate relief faster and cheaper and more safely than nuclear power."
To the extent that Obama offered the nuclear loan guarantees to win Republican votes for an energy and climate bill, Cochran added, the move came too early: "From a crass political standpoint, he should have used it as a bargaining chip."
Politics aside, Cochran and Thornburgh -- a Republican -- agree that the great unresolved issue is how to dispose of nuclear waste. It is ironic that Obama demonstrated a renewed commitment to nuclear power in the same month that his budget sounded the death knell
for the highly controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.
So what about me? Much as I love that John Hall YouTube clip, I am not a flower child. I look at France and see a society functioning smoothly and safely on nuclear power. And yet, if nuclear is so important to our future, why are we still waiting for a definitive solution to the nuclear waste problem? We have the brainpower, I don't doubt that. But will we be able to summon the will and the wallet, as the first President Bush once put it, to get it done?
In the end, nuclear power is one of those facets of modern life that requires a leap of faith, the kind I take every time I step onto an airplane. Do you understand technology? Do you trust it? Do you trust those responsible for keeping you safe? It's been a long time since I survived TMI. I'm getting there on the trust thing. The feds could close the deal with me by launching a Manhattan Project on nuclear waste disposal, deadline any time before those new Georgia reactors come online.