Environmental Leadership Discusses Implications of Nuclear Energy at Three Mile Island

By: Cole Garr’18

As one flies out of Harrisburg International Airport on a sunny afternoon, they are bound to notice two things; the flowing Susquehanna River and several large cooling towers located on a sandbank. Those towers are Three Mile Island, the site of the world’s biggest nuclear energy scare until the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. After these events, the construction of nuclear power plants would decrease for the next two decades and United States nuclear regulations would move to the forefront of policy debate. Despite the disaster, nuclear energy is still a large part of the American energy sector, and one that the Environmental Leadership fellows explored this past week.

Several decades ago, a unit housing containment apparatus and connecting water towers suffered a partial meltdown that, luckily, was stabilized by engineers before the damage became widespread. One film, “Meltdown at Three Mile Island”, is quick to point out the inefficiencies of the plant at the time and the need for qualified workers to follow a clear regiment of conduct to prevent such emergencies. Stirring the curiosity of researchers and students alike, Three Mile Island is a great location to cultivate debate over nuclear regulations and the strength of the industry.

Today, Three Mile Island presents a very different picture from the scenes of chaos in 1979. It is a large energy supplier to the eastern Mid-Atlantic region, providing energy to 800,000 homes and generates 852 net megawatts, according to parent company Exelon Corporation. The plant itself is subject to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was established in 1974.

Environmental Leadership had been challenged by expert-in-residence ,Howard Ernst, to explore alternative methods of energy in a world searching for sustainability. At Three Mile Island, they explored one of the most controversial: nuclear energy. While the use of nuclear energy is widely-recognized as omitting fewer carbon dioxide emissions than non-renewables, the dangers to the populace and surrounding environment can be catastrophic, as they nearly were at Three Mile Island.

When the Environmental Leadership team arrived at the site of the infamous 1979 accident, they were quick to highlight much of the dual nature of nuclear power. Speaking with the Communications Director of the plant, the participants asked provoking questions regarding the economic benefits of nuclear energy, when compared with non-renewables, as well as the dangers of the nuclear industry. This opportunity to speak with experts at the facility allowed the students to begin conceptualizing and developing ideas regarding the business of nuclear energy.

Perhaps one of the most unique experiences of Three Mile Island was being able to see the control room and learning about the intense process which employees must pass in order to work at the plant. Every month, the operators are retested on properly running the plant and must be able to pass the test before they can go back to the control room. The regulations put on the nuclear industry are designed to test the safety and sustainability of the plants. One way that this is done is by making parent companies create an environmental clean-up fund for the eventual shutdown of the plant. This is to ensure that there is responsibility for the maintenance of the site even after it is no longer profitable. Given the rigidity of the regulations, Cole Garr ‘18 asked the Communications Director his thoughts on the likelihood of new plants being started and becoming operational within the United States. He responded that, given the regulations, it would be difficult to imagine companies investing in new sites, but not impossible, considering how lucrative the business can be.

As the nuclear industry slumps against the current shale boom, it will be interesting for the Environmental Leadership group to further examine the role of nuclear energy in a market dominated by non-renewables. Is there strength in the energy business for nuclear? Can nuclear energy be a safe and accepted energy source? Are non-renewables preventing the expansion of future plants? These are questions that the team will no doubt ponder and analyze throughout the upcoming year. Regardless, their time at Three Mile Island gave them insight into the role that courageous men and women play in managing the safety and preservation of nuclear power plants nationwide.