I’m writing this column on March 28, exactly 42 years after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident that changed my life – and in many respects, all of our lives – forever.
In the years since, the Three Mile Island accident has proven to be a font of invaluable – and remarkably cheap – lessons regarding nuclear plant safety, design, operations, regulation and training.
At the time, those lessons didn’t feel cheap – the accident made clear the immense power locked in a nuclear fuel core, destroying a billion-dollar plant in little more than two hours, terrorizing the surrounding community and nearly bankrupting a good company.
But on balance, and as confirmed by exhaustive, decades-long assessment, that ugly accident yielded its priceless information without physical harm to anyone. By comparison, most new technologies – commercial air travel, for example – mature the hard way, through painful and perilous trial and error. For the most part (Chernobyl is the single – and avoidable – exception), nuclear technology has been demonstrably friendly to humans and environment.
The Three Mile Island accident should have opened the door to expanded use of safe, reliable and clean nuclear energy for generations to come – and if it had, we would now be well down the track to elimination of greenhouse gas emissions.
Instead, the prevalent public perception – driven by media hype – was that nuclear energy is unacceptably dangerous. That perception fueled environmentalist opposition and it soured investor support. Forty-two years later, our once robust U.S. nuclear industry is badly depleted. Our aging fleet of nuclear plants is still managing to produce nearly 20% of the nation’s electrical needs, but that contribution will drop precipitously over the next decade as old plants are being retired and only a few replacements are planned.
In recent years, there have been other energy events that have revealed vital lessons about our nation’s energy future, lessons that have been misinterpreted, ignored, or missed altogether. These include the 2018 and 2020 forest fires in Northern California and last month’s deep freeze in Texas that together took hundreds of lives and caused extensive property damage – events that may seem very different but actually have striking similarities.
These crises were triggered by abnormally severe weather – protracted hot and dry conditions in Northern California and weeks of sub-zero temperatures in Texas. Climate activists, media and politicians emphatically assert that they are evidence of man-caused climate change. That’s far from certain; weather and climate are not the same, and the California heat and Texas cold, while unusually severe, were not unprecedented.
But regardless of cause, in both cases, the in-place power delivery systems and infrastructure were unable to cope with the weather extremes leading directly to the dire consequences that transfixed the nation.
The state-licensed electricity providers in California and Texas have been held accountable for their failures to provide electrical power sources and transmission systems sufficiently resilient to deal with extreme weather. Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the nation’s largest utilities, has been bankrupted by damage claims.
But a significant contributor in both cases was the regulatory and social pressure on utility companies to provide low-cost electricity and to simultaneously invest heavily in green power systems – an early preview of life under a “green new deal.” Left out of the budget was the funding in California to clear the highly combustible undergrowth from thousands of miles of transmission corridors and in Texas to winterize all those new windmills.
Further, replacing fossil fueled plants with solar and wind systems reduces overall grid system reliability, which turned out to be a particularly consequential problem in the Texas freezing weather.
Whether or not climate change is a truly existential crisis, sooner or later (preferably sooner) we must transition to sustainable, climate-friendly energy sources. In doing so, we’d best heed the bottom-line (and perhaps soon to be unlearned) lessons from the California and Texas energy system problems and the long-ago TMI accident. They are:
1. Proceed cautiously and conservatively, with full recognition of the importance of system reliability and back-up energy supplies to preempt major power outages with catastrophic safety and economic consequences.
2. Be prepared to pay the freight. This will be a frighteningly expensive trip.
3. Ignore the media and political buzz. Find a way to make sensible, objective, apolitical energy policy decisions. Political virtue signaling, climate accords and ambitious targets for greenhouse gas reduction – without realistic ways to achieve them – will get us nowhere.
Finally, I see no way to achieve our long-term energy and environmental goals without re-vitalizing the U.S. nuclear power option, itself a big hill to climb. Let’s get on with it.
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