Nuclear power use on the decline

Dying: Twenty years after Three Mile Island, nuclear power is efficient, but disappearing.

April 04, 1999|By Matthew L. Wald | Matthew L. Wald,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Twenty years after the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the nuclear industry has succeeded in ways that were hard to imagine in March 1979 as Pennsylvania cowered in fear and plants around the nation subsequently lost their luster and scores of half-built reactors were abandoned. The industry is doing better now, but extinction is in sight.

Today, reactors are quietly producing about one-quarter more electricity each, and the level of radiation exposure to workers is down, as is the number of automatic shut-downs. Uranium fuel is cheap and plentiful, and, with low interest rates, so is nuclear power's biggest ingredient, capital. The industry has also happily achieved a lowered public profile.

"And everything seems to be falling apart," Michael Corradini, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin, said sadly.

The nuclear industry will be around for years to come, but seems to have peaked in terms of the number of working reactors and their share of power generated nationally. No reactors are being built; the last ordered were Palo Verde 1, 2 and 3 in Arizona in October 1973, the month the Arab oil embargo began.

Since then there has been an energy revolution, but it wasn't nuclear. A barrel of oil, which has roughly enough energy to run a small house for a month, sold for $12 in 1973; by 1979 it was $40. Today it is back down around $12. These gyrations upward lured utility companies into nuclear decisions that now look ridiculous.

For example, Millstone 3 reactor in Waterford, Conn., was far over budget during construction in the late 1970s. Even after the incident at Three Mile Island, consultants said it was still worthwhile to finish Millstone if oil averaged $96 a barrel over the reactor's lifetime. The Energy Information Administration, part of the Energy Department, predicted that the price would be $100 by the turn of the century. But oil is now about a 10th of that.

Reactors are a bit like the Concordes, the supersonic transport planes that first flew a few days before the Three Mile Island accident, or the Apollo moon rockets, which made the last of their flights to the moon a few years before. They are technological artifacts of an era slipping into history.

Cloning the best practices from one utility to another, policing each other, getting more output from the reactors, the industry essentially adopted the Greenpeace motto: A nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. It vowed to have no more meltdowns. Not counting the 1986 catastrophe at Chernobyl, where the nuclear reactors are of a different design, the industry has so far succeeded.

But not everyone agrees that the industry's performance is greatly improved. James Riccio, a nuclear expert at Critical Mass, a Washington-based nonprofit organization affiliated with Ralph Nader, said that the plants operated more now because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had shortened the list of equipment that had to be in perfect working order for them to run, and the number of automatic shut-downs has declined because the number of manual shut-downs is up. "They've gotten more intelligent about what they're doing," he said, "but then again, they've had to."

There have been other changes in the last 20 years. If two decades ago nuclear power seemed forbidding and secret, today anyone can log on to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Web site, which offers detailed specifications for each reactor (http:// pib/pib.html). For Three Mile Island Unit 1, the undamaged twin of the reactor that had the meltdown, the data include the identification numbers stamped on the water pumps. Another table for Three Mile Island shows the temperatures and pressures at which the emergency systems will automatically start, with different numbers depending on how many coolant pumps are running.

But elsewhere technology is accelerating, too. Natural gas has become cheaper to find and recover, and the system for turning it into electricity has improved steadily. The newest plants produce twice as many kilowatt-hours from a thousand cubic feet as the ones that nuclear power was competing with in 1979.

The real reactor killer, according to Corradini and others, is something that was not thought of in 1979 -- deregulation in the utility industry. Nationwide, power companies are fissioning into companies that will distribute electricity and sell it to consumers (like local phone companies) and other companies that will generate power and compete to sell it (like long-distance carriers).

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