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Three Mile Island

Did Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima kill nuclear power?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green – Nuclear Monitor editor

Several experts have recently commented on the impacts of nuclear disasters on the growth of nuclear power ‒ all of them downplaying the impact of accidents and emphasizing economics instead.

Commenting on the March 1979 Three Mile Island accident, Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute writes:1

"Three months earlier, on Christmas Day 1978, Business Week's scathing 10-page cover story described how nuclear power's US sales had collapsed ‒ and it faced in Europe and Japan "the most serious crisis in its 30-year history" ‒ for lack of a market. US orders had plummeted from 41 in 1973 to zero in 1978; 40 per cent of their cancellations occurred before 1979, leaving many others teetering on the brink and cancelled soon thereafter. Similarly, orders in the past decade so dwindled that global nuclear capacity shrank in two of the three years before the Fukushima disaster.

"The nuclear industry blames Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima for scaring off the public. But capital markets had already fled to better returns and lower risks in renewable competitors that got [US]$380bn of investment last year (more than 10 times nuclear's), produce more electricity, and enjoy public enthusiasm. Any remaining pockets of nuclear enthusiasm rely on theology not economics and on conscripted not voluntary investment."

Physicist Frank von Hippel commented on the Chernobyl disaster in Scientific American:2

"Superficially, it is reasonable to leap to the conclusion that fear generated by the Chernobyl disaster turned the public against nuclear power ‒ so strongly that even now, three decades later, there is serious doubt that it will ever be a major alternative to climate-threatening fossil fuels. In the 15 years before the Chernobyl accident, an average of about 20 new nuclear power reactors came online each year. Five years after the accident, the average had dropped to four a year. But the full story is more complex."

von Hippel notes that widespread public concern was not the only reason for the sharp drop in nuclear construction post-Chernobyl:

"Such worries contributed to the drop in new plant construction post-Chernobyl, but there were other reasons. One was that the growth of electric power consumption in developed countries slowed dramatically at around the same time because the price of electricity stopped falling. In 1974 the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was projecting that the U.S. would require the equivalent of 3,000 large nuclear power reactors by 2016. Today it would take just 500 such plants to generate as much electricity as we consume on average ‒ although more capacity would be required for times of peak consumption.

"Another factor is that, contrary to the claims of boosters in the 1950s that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter," it is quite expensive. Fuel costs are low, but construction costs are huge, especially in North America and Europe ‒ [US]$6 billion to $12 billion per reactor. This expense has been driven in part by more stringent safety standards but also by the fact that, with fewer plants being built, there are fewer construction workers qualified to build them, resulting in costly construction delays for corrections of mistakes. …

"On the scale needed to shift human energy use away from fossil fuels, therefore, nuclear power has become a helpful but relatively marginal player. Chernobyl damaged its prospects, but it was not the only reason for the technology's decline."

Peter Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, recently wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:3

"Fukushima did not undermine a budding nuclear renaissance. For economic reasons, there was none. The 30-plus reactors that had applied for licenses in the United States in 2008-09 had shrunk by two-thirds before March 2011. The cost overruns at Olkiluoto and Flamanville were well underway and owed nothing to events in Japan. But Fukushima did tilt many nations away from the needed governmental benevolence sharply."

Projections for global nuclear growth have fallen sharply since Fukushima ‒ the IAEA's current 'low' estimate for nuclear capacity in 2030 is down 29.5% from the pre-Fukushima low estimate, while the high estimate for 2030 is down 21%4 ‒ but as the above authors point out, Fukushima isn't the only reason for the retreat.

Lovins is a nuclear critic whereas von Hippel and Bradford are nuclear-neutrals. How do nuclear advocates explain the stagnation of nuclear power and the failure of the nuclear renaissance to materialize? There are plenty of explanations, including blaming (or crediting) anti-nuclear campaigners ‒ often dramatically overemphasizing the impact of anti-nuclear campaigners. Many of the explanations emphasize economics and boil down to the failure of governments to provide sufficient subsidies. Some explanations concentrate on the difficulty of financing capital costs.

Former World Nuclear Association executive Steve Kidd is one of a small number of nuclear advocates who speaks openly and honestly. Kidd writes:5

"[T]here is no unique financing mechanism that the relevant institutions can come up with to rescue a nuclear project that has questionable returns or too high a degree of risk for investors. This is the real problem: nuclear projects have largely become too expensive and risky to offer lenders the degree of assurance they require. ... Even with government incentives such as loan guarantees, fixed electricity prices and certain power offtake, nuclear projects today struggle to make economic sense, at least in the developed world. ... World interest rates are currently low, which removes one disadvantage of capital intensive projects. These low rates indicate that there is funding available but a possible shortage of viable projects."

A recent column in the Financial Times illustrates how safety concerns and economics have come together in the mess that is the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR):6

"When French and German scientists began in the mid-1990s to design a new reactor, they were also seeking to engineer public opinion. The fruit of their work, the European Pressurised Reactor, was designed to be safer than any that had gone before. ... It is those very safety features, say critics, that are responsible for making the EPR, in the words of Greenwich University energy expert Steve Thomas, "a bastard to build". Projects to construct EPRs in France and Finland have been fraught with difficulty, although another in China appears to be progressing better. ...

"Today, the Finnish plant on Olkiluoto Island is nine years behind schedule and €5.2bn over budget. The project is led by Finnish utility TVO, which has fallen out so badly over costs with main contractor Areva that the two companies have gone to court. The protracted difficulties in Finland helped bring Areva to its knees, prompting January's plan to sell its reactor business to EDF. This has added more stress to EDF, whose finance director Thomas Piquemal resigned this month, saying Hinkley Point could sink the company. ...

"The sheer bulk required by the EPR's design also caused problems once a project to build one in France finally got under way after the avidly pro-nuclear Nicolas Sarkozy replaced Mr Chirac as president in 2007. The project at Flamanville on the Channel coast is, unlike its Finnish cousin, led by EDF. But it has fared little better. It is six years behind schedule and €7.2bn over budget."

The U.S. has been spared the EPR fiasco. A total of seven EPRs were planned at six sites in the U.S.7 Four EPR construction licence applications were submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) but all four applications have been abandoned or suspended. In February 2015, Areva asked the NRC to suspend work on EPR design certification until further notice.8

But nuclear power's economic problems are just as acute in the U.S. A recent article in Power Magazine quoted New York Times reporter Eduardo Porter saying that "nuclear energy is toast" and is "dropping dramatically as a share of global electricity", and nuclear economics are "dismal".9

A recent article published by the U.S. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers asks whether nuclear power's 'death spiral' has begun in the U.S.10 It begins: "U.S. nuclear power plant operators are fighting a war on two fronts: Crashing prices for natural gas and accelerating market penetration of renewable energy have both contributed to dramatic drops in wholesale power price levels ‒ in some states, they've fallen by more than two-thirds over the past decade. This has left nuclear power, whose operating costs are pretty much fixed, with few options other than surrender."

The IEEE article quotes former NRC chair Gregory Jaczko: "It's been a widely held belief that nuclear is incredibly cheap to operate. That was the case 10 years ago, when nuclear plants were cash cows. That's not the case today, especially as the plants age."


1. Amory Lovins, 21 March 2016, 'Capital markets had already fled from nuclear',

2. Frank von Hippel, 1 April 2016, 'Chernobyl Didn't Kill Nuclear Power',

3. Peter A. Bradford, 20 March 2016, 'When the Unthinkable is Deemed Impossible: Reflecting on Fukushima',

4. IAEA series: 'Energy, Electricity and Nuclear Power Estimates',

5. Steve Kidd, 11 June 2015, 'Nuclear myths – is the industry also guilty?',

6. Tom Burgis, Kiran Stacey and Michael Stothard, 20 March 2016, 'EDF's nuclear troubles rooted in caution',

7. Beyond Nuclear, February 2015, 'Epic Fail: Électricité de France and the “Evolutionary Power Reactor”',

8. World Nuclear News, 6 March 2015, 'US EPR plans suspended',

9. Aaron Larson, 23 March 2016, 'Is Nuclear Energy "Toast"?',

10. Peter Fairley, 25 Mar 2016, 'Has U.S. Nuclear Power's Death Spiral Begun?',

Is Fukushima the new normal for nuclear reactors?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Benjamin Sovacool − Director, Centre for Energy Technologies, AU-Herning at Aarhus University; Associate Professor, Vermont Law School

The new crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan saw radioactive water leak again from the crippled facility, raising fears that groundwater flowing into the Pacific Ocean could be contaminated.[1] The Japanese government also raised the international incident level – the scale used to assess nuclear accidents – from one to three out of seven. The original nuclear meltdown following the 2011 Japanese earthquake was scaled seven.

Even if Fukushima was ultimately caused by the 2011 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, accidents such as this beg the question: can nuclear energy ever be truly safe? There are three reasons to think that nuclear accidents are common, and could increase – and it's not because of the technology. Let's have a look at the evidence.

Lessons from history

In the early 1980s, Yale sociologist Charles Perrow argued that the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island was a "normal accident".[2] The crux of his argument was that complicated technological systems have unavoidable problems that can't be designed around.

Perrow's argument − still relevant today − rested on three pillars. First, people are fallible, even at nuclear reactors. Operator error is still a very common factor in incidents and accidents.

Second, big accidents almost always have very small beginnings. Nuclear power plants are so complex that relatively simple things — shirt tails, fuses, light bulbs, mice, cats, and candles — can disrupt the entire system.

And finally, many failures are those of organisations more than technology. Given the right event, all these factors can lead to system-wide failure. Perrow concludes that such high-tech, dangerous systems are hopeless and should be abandoned, as the inevitable risks of failure outweigh any conceivable benefits.

Nuclear reactors do have inherent advantages over fossil fuels, but Perrow's argument raises serious questions about nuclear safety.

Never-ending accidents

Even so, Perrow was writing in the 1980s. Surely things have improved since then? Well, perhaps not.

If you consider the full range of incidents and accidents reported on the International Nuclear Event Scale [3], there have been hundreds of events over the past few decades. One peer-reviewed study identified 105 nuclear accidents totalling U$176.9 billion in damages and 4,231 fatalities worldwide from 1952 to 2011.[4] The International Atomic Energy Agency also reports no less than 2,400 separate incidents since the organisation began collecting data in the 1950s.

Most of these incidents involved no major releases of radiation or fatalities. But three emerging trends still cause reason for grave concern.

First, major modern nuclear power accidents are no longer one-off events. Instead, they can span years or even decades, creating a sort of "continuous accident".

The infamous Chernobyl nuclear power accident may have started on April 25 1986, but it continued into the early 1990s. Secrecy, further accidents, and wildfires in the exclusion zone meant that exposure to dangerous levels of radiation weren't controlled immediately.

We can see this same "continuous" trend with the accident at Fukushima. The triple meltdown itself at Fukushima in March 2011 was just the beginning.

In March 2013 a power outage left four underground spent fuel pools without fresh cooling water for several hours. The same month, it surfaced that a TEPCO crew laying down rat-proof netting caused another outage. In April 2013 regulators discovered that thousands of gallons of radioactive water had seeped into the ground from a leaking system of plastic sheeting.

In May, a fire broke out near Fukushima Unit 3 — ostensibly caused by cardboard boxes catching flame. And most recently in August 2013, regulators announced that 300 tons of radioactive water was found leaking from storage tanks.

New designs, new problems

There is some evidence that newer reactor designs and systems are more prone to accidents. Dennis Berry, Director Emeritus of Sandia National Laboratories, explains that the problem with new reactors and accidents is twofold: scenarios arise that are impossible to plan for in simulations, and people make mistakes.[5] As he put it: "Fabrication, construction, operation, and maintenance of new reactors will face a steep learning curve: advanced technologies will have a heightened risk of accidents and mistakes. The technology may be proven, but people are not."

Former nuclear engineer David Lochbaum has noted that almost all serious nu­clear accidents have occurred when operators have little experience with a plant.[6] This makes new systems incredibly risky.

Lochbaum cites numerous historical examples of nuclear reactor accidents, including Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, which suffered accidents immediately or soon after opening. Only Fukushima seems to have defied the trend; it was opened in 1971 and continued operating until the 2011 earthquake.

Electric pressure

The third problem is electric market restructuring. This puts more pressure on nuclear operators to keep costs low, potentially compromising safety.

The problem is, as former Nuclear Regulatory Commission chair Peter Bradford states, "nuclear energy can be cheap, or it can be safe. But it can't be both."[7] And even then, "there's always the possibility somebody will cut a corner".[8]

For example, the pressure to build new generators on existing sites to avoid finding new locations can increase the risk of catastrophe, since there is a greater chance that one accident can affect multiple reactors.

Nuclear waste storage is also becoming more dangerous, with many spent fuel pools packed with more fuel rods to keep costs low, making them hotter and denser.[9] Operators have to add boron to water pool to absorb neutrons, increasing the risk of chain reaction, or criticality, accidents.

The industry has also been trying to tinker with reactor sizes and promote designs that operators have little experience with, making operator training a factor. Some of these new reactor designs use more fuel and create more heat, meaning they have bigger cores containing larger quantities of dangerous fissionable materials, increasing the magnitude of any accident that could occur.

These factors are worrying (to say the least) given the severity of what a single, serious accident can do. Too bad it seems a matter of when, not if, we will see more of them in the future.


The curse of Three Mile Island

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
LAKA Foundation

As the nuclear era approaches the 30th anniversary of Three Mile Island’s (TMI) partial-core meltdown, the worst commercial nuclear accident in American history, nuclear energy nowadays even appears to be fashionable in certain European green circles these days. At the same time non-political social organizations and conservative groups oppose nuclear power for purely economical reasons. What have been the consequences of the Harrisburg accident aftermath for the nuclear industry and what are the prospects for nuclear power?

The US – until the accident, beginning on March 28 - was expecting to derive about 14 percent of its generating capacity from nuclear power stations in 1979. The US industry had begun confidently of taking new orders totaling 5,000 – 8,000 MW that year – more than any year since 1974. Instead, after ‘Harrisburg’ president Carter ordered an inquiry into the accident and said he would expedite efforts to expand the number of nuclear inspectors. But mid-April he added that “there is no way for us to abandon nuclear power in the foreseeable future,” reiterating his administration’s intention to introduce fresh legislation to accelerate the licensing of new nuclear plants. Intentions that were embedded in forecasts to build between 200 and 500 more nuclear power stations by the year 2000. The only thing on which Carter had been sure was to quit the fast breeder project, the last experimental one at Clinch River in Tennessee. Because of proliferation concerns, he was a consistent opponent of fast breeders. In a May 4, 1979 speech he called the Clinch River breeder reactor a technological dinosaur. Instead of investing public resources in the breeder demonstration project, he urged attention to improving the safety of existing nuclear technology. Finally, despite the fact that at the time of the TMI-accident, 17 utilities had applied to build 30 new nuclear plants in the United States, not a single nuclear power plant started construction in the US since the accident at Three Mile Island - 30 years ago this month.

When the world leading economy doesn’t build new nuclear power plants anymore, there isn’t any doubt that Harrisburg turned out to be disastrous for the nuclear industry. It is true that before the accident at Three Mile Island the great growth of nuclear plant ordering across the Western World in 1960s and 1970s had already slowed dramatically. In the United Sates the stagnancy started already in 1974. Projects were stopped and the building of new ones had been delayed. This was in fact mainly a correction on the too high expectations on the share of nuclear power on the grid in the future. The impact of Harrisburg on the Western World outside the US is, however, indisputable too. The accident boosted the growth of the anti-nuclear movement in Europe and nuclear power became a serious discussion issue within established political parties, leading to a strong public opinion against the continuing use of nuclear energy. In Sweden it had been clear that Harrisburg disturbed a political agreement to build 12 nuclear power plants. Harrisburg was a watershed in the development of nuclear energy. The then executive director of the International Energy Agency Ulf Lantzke admitted that dwindling public confidence was becoming a serious threat to nuclear growth.

Other modifying factors why all previous estimates on nuclear generating capacity for the year 1985 had been reduced step by step in the western world by the end of the 1970s was due to the much slower growth in energy demand in the slipstream of the 1973-74 oil crisis. This caused climbing construction costs and high interest rates, meaning a poor climate for capital investment. Only France and states with dictatorships built their nuclear power stations fast. From 1979 to 1982 France spent US$3bn a year on nuclear power plants and was put into service every two months (18 to be precise). For comparison: construction started of only 17 reactors after 1982 in France and of those only 5 reactors were ordered after 1982 (including the Flamanville EPR). The building of new plants was delayed in Germany, Scandinavia, and in America. But in Russia, in Iran, in South Korea they sprung up. Despite this continuing use of nuclear energy, the TMI accident was a turning point for the nuclear industry. The infamous accident and its once unthinkable partial meltdown of the reactor core brought new construction of nuclear power plants in the US to a grinding halt. Or not?

New nuclear power plants in the US?

Currently there are 17 applications for 26 nuclear plants under consideration. Recently, Oklahoma House lawmakers passed a nuclear power bill, 26 years after Public Service Company of Oklahoma proposed the Black Fox nuclear power plant in eastern Oklahoma, which was abandoned after nine years of protests. The proposal is supported by Republican House leaders that emphasize alternative forms of energy, among which they include nuclear, as a way to ease the state and nation’s dependence on foreign energy sources. Among other things, the measure establishes a review process for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission to consider nuclear power proposals and creates a task force to consider tax changes that would encourage construction of a plant in Oklahoma.

Opponents said the huge cost of a nuclear power plant, estimated at between US$6 bn and US$10 bn, would mean customer rates would rise significantly to help pay for the plant. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which publicly opposes the plan, has said consumer rate increases of 20 to 40 per cent are possible, based on an analysis of similar legislation in other states. Officials of the senior advocacy group said Oklahoma's elderly residents are struggling just to pay their medical and prescription drug costs and that raising electric rates during a bad economy is a bad idea. Today there are 104 nuclear power plants in the US in 34 states, but none in Oklahoma.

The question can be raised how much will remain of the current plans to build nuclear power plants. Since the early years of this century there is much talk about the resurrection of the nuclear industry. Up to now, however, there isn’t any sign of it. Even the pro-nuclear NEI Magazine sounds pessimistically. In his article “Will nuclear rebound?” Chris Gadomski, the managing editor of Nuclear, New Energy Finance, voiced the unrest within the US nuclear lobby about Obama’s views on nuclear power with descriptions as “not optimal” or “not a nuclear energy proponent”, and of course his budget cuts for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility.

Necessity to build new coalitions?

The position against nuclear energy of a non-political organization as AARP makes clear that the established groups against nuclear energy can make use of that.

While some leading (European) environmentalists have become pro-nuclear, because they are of the opinion that nuclear energy is a necessary source of energy in the struggle against climate change, there are American conservatives against nuclear energy because of economical reasons. Something that has become clear at a recent panel on nuclear energy in Harrisburg. Two speakers at opposite ends of the political spectrum took the floor at a Commonwealth Foundation panel on nuclear power. Eric Epstein, chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, a group that advocates for alternatives to nuclear power, and Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, an authoritative Washington based conservative think-tank, for whom it’s purely a matter of economics. There is, however, not so much difference in the outcome of their different reasoning. Epstein explained - before the meltdown of unit 2 - the extreme over budgeting and delayed completions of the two TMI reactors. The construction of the first TMI unit, started in 1968, concluded two year behind schedule before it was put into service in 1974, while the costs had been risen from US$183m to US400m. The second TMI unit was completed five years behind schedule while the expenses were more than three times the original estimated costs, US$700m instead of US$206m. The reactor operated just three months when the accident happened. Epstein estimated the total cleanup costs at US$805m and noted that the electricity ratepayers mainly pay this bill.

Many would expect that a vast majority of the public identify Epstein’s view on nuclear power skeptically, the view of a ‘labor democrat’. But Jerry Taylor, who is advocating smaller government and freer markets, has taken much the same view, though citing different reasons for a no-nuke stance. “Whenever they have been asked the markets have said ‘no’ to nuclear power,” he said, stating that it serves roughly 20 per cent of America’s energy needs, a statistic he blamed to its strong subsidization. While many policymakers have debated changing of regulations to allow the construction of new power stations, Mr. Taylor said, the real barrier is the cost to build them. Currently one new plant costs between US$6 million and US$9 million to build, he said. Even with large subsidies, investors have been unwilling to take a chance, according to Taylor. He said he personally was neutral on nuclear power, however, as long as it is not economically viable he doesn’t see any reason to go on with this. A regional newspaper quoted: “In Finland, where the first privately funded new nuclear plant in decades is being built, construction is two years behind schedule and 60 per cent over budget. Nuclear plants continue to be built in places like France, China and India because they are dictated by the government, not investors, said Taylor.” (But, he is optimistic about that, too).


In order to stop the new rise of fallacies that nuclear power is a solution to overcome the climate change the remains of the old anti-nuclear movement has to build new coalitions, though the political views of some groups might be totally different, if groups can deal with each other in a pragmatic way as long as their interests coincide in the field of nuclear power there’s nothing wrong to align with them. For instance with conservatives (Cato) or non-political groups as AARP.

If the current economical crisis is deepening, however, the choice for nuclear power might evaporate by oneself. As noted above the dramatic slowdown of nuclear ordering by the end of the 1970s was due to a complex mixture of factors in which the oil crisis played a dominant role. The same was true in the 1980s. Since the late 1980s worldwide capacity has risen much more slowly, from 300 GW in the late 1980s to 366 GW in 2005. This happened again in the slipstream of an economical crisis mixed up with the political results of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Though in general you can’t say that the current crisis is the same as the crises before, however for energy use you certainly can. The current economy is shrinking very fast. Moreover, a whole battery of scientists and economist are predicting crises in the short term that are orders of magnitude larger than the current one, of which it is still not yet clear how long it will last.

No time to waste (money)!

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose societies make a clear choice for nuclear power. What if there will be a nuclear accident comparable with Three Mile Island or Chernobyl in let's say 2017? Due to economics (nuclear companies will face huge losses and bankruptcy) and reviving popular resistance all proposed project will be cancelled; half or three quarter of the projects of which construction already started will be abandoned and even countries which rely on nuclear energy (like Italy after Chernobyl) will phase out nuclear.

All the money available (and necessary) in the coming decade to combat climate change has been wasted on nuclear energy, which is not even a solution for climate change in the first place! Remember: every coin can be only spent one time.


  • De Volkskrant (NL), 9 October 1974 / The Economist, 19 March, 1977 / Financial Times, 19 April, 1979 / Financial Times, 4 February 1981 / The Bulletin, March 12, 2009 (Pennsylvania) / Lancaster New Era, 12 March, 2009 (Pennsylvania) / AP, 13 March, 2009 / World Nuclear Industry Handbook / Graphic from Energy Watch Group paper: Uranium-Resources-Nuclear Energy

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