The partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the US was one of those news stories that pierced through the haze of my childhood, both when it happened and later during the clean-up.
I vividly remember watching footage and listening to the commentary when a camera was sent into the reactor. The grimy black and white footage of devastation being investigated by men in radiation suits had the look of something out of a dystopian science fiction movie.
What happened at that plant came frighteningly close to creating a dystopian reality – a reality that was later made horribly real in the now deserted streets of Pripyat, Ukraine, which was turned into a ghost city by the far more serious Chernobyl disaster. The Russian soldiers who recently camped out near the plant may yet have real cause to regret Putin’s brutal war and the decisions of the leaders who sent them there.
Three Mile Island has also been thrust back in public consciousness, although mercifully this has nothing to do with a crisis of global import. The more prosaic reason is the release of a Netflix documentary series telling the now 40-year-old story of the accident and what happened afterwards.
It could scarcely be more timely. Nuclear power is in the spotlight again as western nations seek to find new sources of energy with a view to reducing their dependence on Russian gas, particularly in Britain, where Boris Johnson has loudly trumpeted his support for a new generation of nuclear power plants.
There’s a certain irony here. The one form of Russian energy US president Joe Biden hasn’t sanctioned is the Russian uranium used to fuel its 55 nuclear power stations, which provide nearly a fifth (18.9 per cent per the US Energy Information Administration) of his nation’s electricity.
The documentary exposes the critical problem with this form of power. And it’s not nuclear energy itself, even allowing for the knotty problem of radioactive waste, the vast cost of getting nuclear power plants off the ground and/or the complexity involved. It is people.
The first (and obvious) problem is their reaction to the profit motive. I see you with the sage nod at the back. This contributed to the poor messaging, even misinformation, witnessed in the early days of the disaster, when no one really knew what was going on and how dangerous the situation was, and there was a reluctance to make it clear for fear of the impact it could have on the industry (to which it ultimately dealt a severe body blow).
It also played a key role in what critics described as corner cutting during the clean-up, exposed by whistleblower Richard Parks, very much the star of the show and a compelling interviewee. He lost his job and his relationship as a result of his determination to expose what was going on, in addition to enduring a nasty scare when his apartment was burgled, by people apparently in pursuit of the documentation he possessed and had stored elsewhere. There are those who would maintain, despite all this, that the profit motive is fine so long as the industry is properly regulated.
Again, the Three Mile Island affair calls this into question. Regulators tend to be appointed by politicians. Even if they have an apolitical remit – such as, you know, keeping people safe – their leaders tend to play close attention to political priorities. If the political priority is to encourage nuclear energy as an alternative to importing hydrocarbons from unreliable partners, then they will pay attention to that.
At the time of the accident, president Jimmy Carter, a veteran of the industry, saw it as an important means of reducing America’s dependance on Middle Eastern oil, the problem with which was made brutally clear in the early part of the 1970s.
The Reagan administration that replaced his was also keen. Parks, too, was a strong supporter of nuclear power, which had provided him with a good job and a fine career. He had to wrestle with his conscience before blowing the whistle, a decision that was catalysed by the break-in. But he felt he had no choice.
Here’s the truth: the biggest threat to this planet remains the burning of hydrocarbons and the sudden, and violent, change to the climate this is causing. Some environmentalists have reluctantly come to the conclusion that nuclear has a role to play in the fight against it. The world’s hunger for energy is not going to suddenly vanish. Viable replacements need to be found.
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I confess, I have on occasion found myself being swayed by their arguments. We’ve only just started to feel the catastrophic impact of global heating. But renewable energy technology is developing at a rapid pace, while no one has yet come up with a good answer to the problem with nuclear: people.
People’s poor decisions were at the core of the near meltdown in the core of the second reactor at the Three Mile Island plant, a plant which incredibly was still operating as recently as 2019 (the first reactor was undamaged).
People were behind many of the subsequent scandals. They led to Parks’s contention that nuclear has to have “the profit motive taken out” to be made safe. But, of course, Chernobyl, which was run under the Soviet system, in which profit wasn’t (in theory) the main goal.
People are why other people mistrust nuclear power – and with good reason, as the documentary shows.