Three Mile Islands to go before we sleep

A REALLY BIG "FOR SALE" SIGN WENT UP ON A PIECE OF AMERICAN HISTORY AWHILE BACK. After over a year on the block, Three Mile Island (TMI) has been sold. I should clarify: That portion of TMI, the Unit 1 reactor, which didn't reach meltdown and nearly cause a Chernobyl-ish nuclear catastrophe, has been sold.

You couldn't even give Unit 2 away. That reactor has been shut down since its steaming, partially melted core sent Pennsylvanians scurrying onto highways for unscheduled visits with faraway relatives—very faraway relatives—and drove Northeasterners into queasy analysis of mid-Atlantic weather patterns. March 28 marks the 20th anniversary of those exciting days when Harrisburg held its breath and emergency gauges strained toward meltdown. I don't think many folks are planning to celebrate the occasion, however.

While young people coming of age in a mostly post-nuclear world may not have even heard of TMI, if you are a person of a certain age, you don't need any reminders about the nature of the Three Mile Island accident. You remember clearly the tension in the news broadcasts and the unspoken fears at home as the crisis mounted—particularly if you lived, as I did, in a state near Pennsylvania or happened to catch 1979's well-timed nuclear horror story, The China Syndrome.

These days, few worry about the dangers posed by nuclear energy. There are, after all, no plans to build any more reactors in the United States. Each passing year more of these aging tributes to American technocracy are shut down and their plant sites and environs—one can only hope—cleaned up.

True, the nagging difficulty of how to dispose of their poisonous waste remains unresolved—it's hard to find a storage container that will hold up over 240,000 years. And, yes, some reactors still make the papers when their controllers are discovered, Homer Simpson-like, asleep at the wheel, pressing the wrong button, or opening the wrong valve. But for the most part nuclear energy has slipped into the background noise of the American consciousness.

That is not altogether a good thing.

Deals are being made behind the scenes in many states aimed at ridding the American landscape of these steaming silos. Guess what: You may be picking up the tab. As competition is introduced into the energy industry, utilities that brought you escapades like the TMI meltdown and the gazillion-dollar Shoreham plant in Long Island, New York (never opened, its 40,000 components were recently auctioned off in a garage sale of epic proportions) are seeking ways to shift their losses—their so-called "stranded costs"—onto you, the beneficent ratepayer.

Consider the going price at TMI: Sold! for a mere $23 million to a British and American partnership. Boston Edison's Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Massachusetts was recently passed off for $13 million.

If you're scratching your head and muttering, "Geez, didn't these things cost billions to build," have no fear, you are not losing touch with reality. But you may be losing touch with some currency. Utility lobbyists and their pals in state legislatures are conferring now to work out a process that will soften the blow of the decommissioning or sale of nuclear plants on utilities as new competition only accentuates the economic disadvantages of nuclear-energy production.

Jim Riccio likes to call nuclear power a "really expensive way to boil water." Riccio is an attorney and researcher for Ralph Nader's group, Public Citizen. "This is not capitalism," he says of such deals. "This is what Ralph calls 'lemon capitalism' "—when an investment risk turns bad and the public is maneuvered into picking up the tab. "Many of these reactors met with massive public resistance. Making the public pay for them now is just sickening."

Riccio adds that the nation's anxiety over nuclear power should not be a thing of the past.

"There are still over 100 nuclear power plants in the country that will probably be working for 10 or more years," he says. "We're entering into a more dangerous period in nukes. These are aging reactors. It's a dying industry, so you're not getting the best and the brightest in this field anymore. A lot of the expertise of the previous generation is retiring. The guys who built these plants are retiring.

"And these are very old utilities that are being placed in an environment of increasing pressure to compete." Cost-cutting in such an environment could mean breaches in safety procedures.

The national amnesia isn't, of course, limited to TMI. Anybody out there remember the oil crises of the 1970s? Apparently not. In recent years, the U.S. has gone on an energy-consumption binge of historic proportions at the same time the federal government has drastically reduced spending on research and development of alternative and sustainable energy.

These days Americans are consuming energy like there's no tomorrow. Someday they may be right.

By Kevin Clarke, social issues & public life editor for U.S. Catholic and Claretian Publications' managing editor for online products.

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