Thirty-four years ago, I was just opening my eyes to the world. But they were not open to the energy sector -- much less to what happened at Three Mile Island 34 years ago or that I would one day cover this segment of the American economy.
The so-called nuclear renaissance got its wind about a decade ago. That’s when the scientist and energy policymakers started to give the early warnings about global warming. It’s before the whole shale gas rush and it’s before coal started getting clobbered. Until recently, many people were willing to give nuclear energy a fresh look. After all, the fuel form is relatively emissions free and the uranium used to fire the reactors is ample.
But two years ago, disaster struck. And this time, the tsunami that caused the meltdown at Fukushima was caught on film. Parts of the world have said “no” to nuclear power as a result. But here, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency has licensed four new reactors: Two to Southern Company and two to SCANA Corp’s South Carolina Electric & Gas Co., all of which are three decades in the making.
What now? Nuclear energy's potential comeback in the United States and in the developing world may spawn another kind of resurgence -- the types of protest that occurred in the aftermath of Three Mile Island, the most significant nuclear incident in American history.
By nearly all accounts, the accident on March 28, 1979 is one of the primary impediments to a nuclear revival. While the thought of radiation escaping into the atmosphere is well-appreciated, it is the function of policymakers and utility officials -- and the reporters assigned to cover them -- to effectively communicate their message so as to properly inform the public.
Fears of a "hydrogen bubble" in which radioactive material could devastate the surrounding Pennsylvania towns were palpable. But neither government nor industry could organize a response to quell the unease. Reporters, meantime, gravitated toward those with the most hyperbolic views.
"There was so much speculation and it was all fueled by people who didn't have a background in nuclear technology," says George Koodray, who managed a radio news station near the plant. Koodray, who now is a communications pro in New Jersey, says he has since spent years trying to "undo the damage" that he helped create.
"There were dramatic images of corporate conspiracies -- all supported by events within a time period in which there were oil interruptions and a blockbuster movie called `China Syndrome,' Koodray adds. "Reporters back then were exposed to atom bombs and mushroom clouds and they felt that the plant could go off like a nuclear bomb."
Even before the scare, India successfully tested a nuclear device in 1974 and gave rise to fears over global nuclear proliferation.
The same trepidation is around today. But there is now a strong emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while trying to diversify the nation's energy mix. It’s a more difficult sale now than it was just five years ago. That’s because natural gas supplies once thought inaccessible are there for the taking. And combined cycle natural gas plants are now a lot less expensive.
But the nuclear industry has successfully argued that a diversified portfolio is good public policy, particularly one that does not involve fossil fuels. So, the U.S. government is offering billions in incentives to expand nuclear energy. Southern Company and its partners are to get an $8.3 billion loan guarantee, which should allow them to have their first reactor operating before the end of the decade.
The industry must still explain what went wrong in Unit 2 on March 28, 1979 and what it has learned in the intervening years. Around 4 a.m. that day, following a loss of feed-water flow, a primary coolant system relief valve lifted and failed to shut. This resulted in a loss of primary coolant, uncovering the reactor core and causing a partial core meltdown. While the matter took 14 years and $1 billion to clean up, the second of the two units, Unit 1, remains operational today.
Faulty equipment meant to detect the malfunction is partially to blame. But a lack of emergency training along with disparate communications compounded the whole mess. By 7 a.m. that same morning, panic had arisen over a "hydrogen bubble" that could explode.
The terror only escalated when the facility's owner, Metropolitan Edison, told the public it didn't feel as if it had to report every nuance of the situation. Pennsylvania's governor also complained that he was unable to get answers, all of which led to five frightful days in which areas as far as 300 miles away from Harrisburg were advised they might need to evacuate. Calm would not prevail until President Carter came to reassure the people.
"There was a clamor to get out of D.C.," says Jeff Dennard, president of his own consulting firm in Warwick, R.I. In 1979, he headed media relations for a former congressman from New Mexico before going on to run a communications division for the parent of Three Mile Island. "It felt like every person for themselves."
The fright was no doubt bona fide. But the reality is that hydrogen in the core could not explode; rather, it would safely combine with oxygen. And while state leaders and utility officials can be faulted for not having emergency preparedness plans, many in the media failed to give knowledgeable sources a proper forum -- experts, who from day one, were saying radiation levels were not harmful.
The press, unfortunately, is often behind the curve. It's a problem partly of its own making as many organizations are more intent on focusing on the sensational instead of matters of real substance. In the case of Three Mile Island, more journalists should have departed from the herd. Reporters should have been talking not just to activists but also to nuclear scientists and engineers who could separate fact from fiction.
The goal is to get to the truth, not obscure it. Conflicting messages from a variety of sources contributed to the public's fear. And while radiation was released from the plant, it never presented any dangers to the surrounding areas -- all confirmed after endless environmental investigations and legal challenges. Despite the melting of about one-third of the fuel core, the reactor vessel contained the damage and no one was hurt or killed.
The PR Battle
Winning the ongoing PR battle is atop the nuclear industry's agenda. As such, General Electric, Areva NP and Westinghouse are developing state-of-the art reactors that have multiple safety measures and are designed to cope with any sudden loss of cooling.
The nuclear industry is known for its technicians and not its media savvy. It must continue to evolve and work toward a culture of openness and accessibility. It must allay legitimate worries and plan for the "unthinkable." While no company can replicate a potential disaster, preparing and practicing for them can mitigate damages. Those at the top must demonstrate empathy and communicate all known facts to address concerns.
"There's a natural tendency when we talk about things that are potentially catastrophic to hide the bad news," says communications expert Dennard. "If there is bad news, get it out as fast as you can and as factually as you know at that moment. Don't get out anything if you do not know."
Three Mile Island taught the nuclear industry, along with the rest of corporate America, to disseminate information during a crisis in a coherent and forthright manner. That apparent inability coupled with the preconceived ideas that reporters had toward nuclear power helped to increase the emotional intensity in March 1979.
A reasoned dialogue is now more difficult given Fukushima. Still, a more cohesive international strategy is required — one where technological and safety features are universally shared through multilateral treaties. Currently, 435 reactors exist in 30 countries that generate 14 percent of the globe’s electricity, says the World Nuclear Association.
And more are on the way: China now has 26 nuclear reactors under construction and is planning six more by 2020. Russia is building 10 more. At the same time, India and Pakistan are moving forward as is Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
The Japanese, meanwhile, had 54 reactors that supplied a quarter of its electric power, all before the disaster. At one point, all had shut down, although a few now operate. The country, meanwhile, is contemplating its energy future.
As for the United States, regulators are recommending that the existing reactors here get routinely inspected while they must also be reviewed every 10 years for seismic and flooding risks. Plants, too, must show that they have full-proof backup power to chill spent fuel pools. Industry here says that it has invested billions updating its plants, all of which would help mitigate a Japan-like situation.
“To have backup generators in place where they can be washed up or destroyed seems to me to be a systemic failure,” says George Frampton, who was the lead investigator during Three Mile Island, in a talk with the reporter in the days after the Fukushima disaster. “Clearly, if they could all be taken out by a wave, the system was not fail-proof.”
The Japanese disaster has caused the global community to pause and to consider how to do better, necessary considering that 60 nuclear plants are under construction in 14 countries. Meantime, Germany is vowing to dismantle its program while Italy and Switzerland are saying they will cut back.
The Fukushima disaster has been incredibly worse than anything ever imagined at Three Mile Island. Yet, the two events share a common thread, which is that even in the most stressful of times, calmer heads prevailed. As for Japan, brave folks entered the facilities to cool them while in Pennsylvania, level-headed public officials were able to reassure a scared public.
So many factors go into deciding whether to invest and build a nuclear plant. But the one matter that must take place before any of that is to occur is successful public outreach. Here, much has changed over 34 years. But more needs to be done, especially in the wake of Fukushima.