If we’re serious about a secure, habitable future in Pennsylvania, we should embrace atomic power generation.
By closing a block valve early on March 28, 1979, engineers narrowly averted a reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Such a meltdown might have stopped unaided, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission later reported, or continued until “molten fuel had ruptured the bottom of the steel reactor vessel and dropped onto the basement of the reactor building” leading to an “eventual full core meltdown.” Thousands in Dauphin County were temporarily evacuated; authorities claimed no lasting damage.
On May 4th, streaming giant Netflix released “Meltdown: Three Mile Island,” a docuseries bringing the story to a national audience from a whistleblower’s perspective. Its creators are acutely aware of the event’s enduring influence. “I believe the lessons of ‘Meltdown’ resonate far beyond the events of 1979,” director Kief Davidson stated. Depicting a “complex web of corporate greed which nearly led to our radioactive ruin,” the show suggests that nuclear generation still isn’t viable – especially when profit’s involved.
Pennsylvania’s current nuclear plants appear on their way out. Three Mile Island itself was closed in 2019, and environmental review technicalities have halted recertification of reactors at York County’s Peach Bottom plant. Only three others remain. One of them is Montgomery County’s Limerick Generating Station, a towering sight familiar to anyone traversing Route 422. Should these remnants go meekly into decommissioning?
It turns out that the unique capabilities of nuclear power are needed now more than ever. Worldwide, the Russian invasion of Ukraine spiked liquid natural gas futures and sent supply shocks reverberating through the energy industry. Questions about worldwide dependence on hydrocarbons for energy have been added to a chorus of regional calls for decarbonization and improved air quality. Around the bend is a second electrification. With the advent of commercially available electric vehicles (and their power to change how we live our lives in the Commonwealth) comes the inherent requirement for increased grid capacity to support the massive charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.
These disparate goals might be insurmountable without the unique qualities of atomic power. While Pennsylvania is one of the nation’s largest producers of natural gas, the superior efficiency of nuclear power becomes clear in the data. In 2020, the latest year for which information is available, Pennsylvania’s natural gas power plants generated 120 million megawatt hours of electricity. Nuclear power generated 76 million megawatt hours. There are 69 natural gas plants in the Commonwealth and only four nuclear power plants. Nuclear holds an undisputed advantage in air quality and carbon output; natural gas produces 898 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour according to EPA measurements, while nuclear fission produces no CO2 emissions at all. And as highly populated, automobile-centric metropolitan regions switch to battery powered cars, it boasts the highest capacity factor of existing power sources. It would take far more solar and wind generation to fill that gap with those renewables. That also means using up more open space – nuclear power plants have the smallest land use of any power source, with only .7 square meters per megawatt hour on average.
Hesitation to embrace nuclear power is understandable. Its quiet reliability worldwide means that the spotlight remains only on two major incidents. The fourth episode of “Meltdown,” titled “Fallout,” ends with a montage of nuclear incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi, plants which both opened in the 1970s but later suffered serious accidents. Thankfully, the connections are tenuous at best. Fukushima’s reactors survived a 9.0 magnitude earthquake but were flooded by the resulting 40-foot tsunami, conditions that Pennsylvania is virtually certain never to face. And Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in history, occurred even though its operation was severed from the profit motive that “Meltdown” decries. Neither example represents potential conditions here.
When it comes to Three Mile Island, the scientists and engineers of the venerable American Nuclear Society have labeled the Netflix show “drama disguised as a documentary” A dive into the data showed that citizens of Denver, simply because of its higher elevation in a thinner atmosphere, were exposed to higher doses of radiation than those received in the Harrisburg metropolitan area. While concerns about radiation exposure were taken seriously, “[the] core was not going to experience a self-sustaining nuclear reaction and it could not go off like a bomb and destroy thousands of miles of land,” said Dr. William Burchill, a nuclear engineering professor with twenty-five years of experience in private-sector atomic steam power.
Atomic power made long strides over forty years, and plant systems, training, oversight, and emergency preparedness have all improved. In another forty years, it’s possible that power from nuclear fusion, which doesn’t split atoms, will eliminate meltdown risk entirely. Private firms in Finland have created a novel underground storage facility for spent fuel rods intended to keep them safely decaying for 100,000 years, a model for the rest of the world to follow.
Skepticism has a long half-life, but there are signs that Americans aren’t willing to wait that long. According to Pew Research, support for increasing atomic generating capacity grew from 43% in 2020 to 50% in 2021. But first the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission must recertify existing reactors or approve new ones, something it has regularly declined to do. In Harrisburg, the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standards Act should recognize nuclear power as an alternative energy source, removing barriers to competition and making recertification of existing reactors feasible. It currently treats nuclear power no different from coal or gas. Should new reactors ever be commissioned, Pennsylvania’s struggles with managing infrastructure mean public-private partnerships will be essential to handle the capital-intensive projects.
The presence of atomic generating stations like Limerick in our communities promises everything to gain and little if anything to fear, despite what’s popular on Netflix. If we’re serious about ending hydrocarbon dependence, increasing electricity consumption, and preserving the environment all at the same time, nuclear power may be Pennsylvania’s only answer. While other states falter, we can take the initiative and lead towards a more secure, habitable future.