Back to the Cows
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Part 2 of a 6-part series –
TMI, Jimmy Carter and the Nuclear Cost Myth
– While attending one of my company board meetings a few years back in Pasco, Wash., I introduced myself to a No-Nukes Northwest representative from Portland, Ore. She said she was at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Penn., 41 years ago following the partial nuclear reactor meltdown that released radiation into the atmosphere. With pained expression she told me, “I saw the skin falling off the cows!”
(Read about Fukushima cows in the Tri-City Herald or on my blog.)
So I searched the internet for skinless Three Mile Island cows – no joy. I did, however, find dozens of photos of then-President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn touring the stricken plant just four days after the accident.
Carter was a nuclear engineer, served in the nuclear Navy, and understood radiation. Local Harrisburg authorities, on the other hand, had no understanding of the potential consequences of a radiation release, and had made no plans for a nuclear emergency response. Public notifications were erratic and contradictory.
Carter realized that only his on-scene presence could cut through the communication chaos and arrest the unnecessary fear gripping the Harrisburg area. As residents from the Three Mile Island area were voluntarily driving out of town, the presidential motorcade was driving in.
Today President Carter is America’s oldest living and longest-lived president. While it seems that his skin is okay, the skin certainly did not fall off the local cows (nor did they produce irradiated milk). Looking back we know that the self-evacuation of nearly 150,000 people – most prior to Carter’s arrival – was driven by fear induced by lack of government readiness to properly assess nuclear events.
Three Mile Island nevertheless touched off a nuclear fear epidemic in America, championed by popular singer-songwriters, actors, politicians and activist groups. Fifty-one U.S. nuclear plant construction orders were cancelled over the next five years, causing the phrase “An accident anywhere is an accident everywhere” to swiftly entered the industry’s lexicon.
U.S. nuclear operators – which today produce more than 50% of our nation’s carbon-free electricity – knew they would have to collaborate to survive. By the end of 1979 they established the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations to openly share among themselves operating experience and hold each other accountable for safety performance.
Three Mile Island’s legacy
As a result of this continuing collaboration, today’s U.S. nuclear safety performance far exceeds federal requirements and the safety record of any other industry, including the airline industry. Collaboration also led to operational efficiencies that uniformly improved cost of power and reliability.
News media coverage of nuclear power often highlights up-front costs and obscures the customer pay off. At clean-energy stakeholder gatherings I’ve seen nuclear power brushed off this way as “too expensive.” That’s also a myth.
The enormous upfront cost of a nuclear plant – today about 13 billion dollars – must be weighed against the massive amounts of energy produced throughout an exceptionally long lifecycle of 80 years. Today that results in an average cost of nuclear energy of less than 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour. By comparison, cost of power from potential replacement sources that could enter service as early as 2025 is estimated at 3.6 cents for natural gas, 3.4 cents for wind, and more than 3.2 cents for solar.
Of these, only nuclear and natural gas – along with coal plants that renewable-heavy California is increasingly reliant upon – have potential to keep our lights on 24/7.
Natural gas and coal potential, however, fall far short of design capability. Fuel availability, maintenance or an excess of electricity from other sources keep natural gas plants offline or running uneconomically 50% of the time. Coal plants are only slightly better. Nuclear is the Cinderella story.
In 1979 nuclear performance compared to potential was also under 60%. After Three Mile Island things began to change.
Sharing power plant operational experience without regard to competitive intellectual proprieties introduced the industry to a common nuclear safety culture. Today industry self-imposed safety standards and protocols far exceed Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements.
Shared experience naturally led to universal performance improvements. Accounting for nuclear fuel loading alongside limiting factors that also impact gas and coal, today’s nuclear plants operate at an average 92% efficiency.
Fuel loading, however, requires fuel unloading, and there’s the rub. I’ll address the comparative attraction of used nuclear fuel in part three of this series. Stay tuned!