In the early hours of March 28, 1979, a malfunctioning valve diverted some of the water used to cool one of the reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant 16 km south of Harrisburg, Pa. Gradually deprived of coolant, the reactor began to overheat. Within hours, the core temperature had risen to 2,760°C—just 50° below the point at which the overheated uranium fuel would have started to melt. Eventually, it could have burned through the reactor container and unleashed massive radioactive contamination on the surrounding area. Within four days of the initial breakdown, technicians brought the reactor under control. But the near-disaster at Three Mile Island—and the nightmarish explosion at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl reactor seven years later—were mishaps from which the international nuclear power industry has never recovered. Now, after nearly a decade of stagnant growth, the industry is struggling to
regain respectability—in the face of bitter opposition by environmental organizations that claim nuclear power is both costly and dangerous. Partly as the result of the accident at Three Mile Island, no new nuclear reactors for electrical power generation have been commissioned in the United States since 1978. But growing concern about the globe’s contaminated atmosphere, along with surging demand for electrical power, could breathe new life into the hard-pressed North American nuclear industry. Some scientists say that the burning of fossil fuels—including coal, oil and natural gas—has contributed to a buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere. They believe that the resulting “greenhouse effect” could lead to a significant increase in the Earth’s temperature. For their part, proponents of nuclear energy say that nuclear power plants can produce cheap energy with minimal
environmental damage. “Each source of electricity, which society needs, poses risks,” said Donald Lawson, president of the commercial reactors division of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), the federal Crown corporation that develops and builds nuclear reactors. Lawson added, “When a nuclear reactor is working as designed, it has far less impact on the environment than any of the other options.”
Still, spokesmen for environmental organizations say that nuclear power plants are inefficient, accident-prone—and dangerous to the environment. Said Alexios Antypas, a research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Safe Energy Communication Council: “Polls indicate that more people are against nuclear power than ever before. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have convinced people that nuclear energy is unsafe.” Said Simon Roberts, a London, England-based spokesman for the environmental organization Friends of the Earth: “The nuclear industry jumped on the greenhouse theory quickly. They are keen to use it as a smoke screen.”
The renewed debate over nuclear power generation coincides with a cluster of anniversaries marking three crucial events in the history of nuclear energy. The near-meltdown at Three Mile Island 10 years ago was followed three years ago next month by the world’s worst nuclear accident—the explosion and fire that killed at least 30 people and injured 200 on April 26,1986, at Chernobyl, a Soviet nuclear power plant 100 km north of Kiev in the Ukraine. As well, 1989 is the 50th anniversary of the discovery of nuclear fission. Two German scientists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, reported in January, 1939, that they had bombarded uranium with neutrons and split the atom—unleashing a new and awesome source of energy. Only six years later, on Aug. 6, 1945, U.S. forces dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, killing more than 71,000 Japanese and hastening the end of the Second World War.
As a source of energy for peaceful use, nuclear energy initially won wide acceptance. Now, more than 300 nuclear reactors are in use in about 30 countries, providing roughly 16 per cent of the world’s electricity. Canada currently has 18 nuclear generating plants in operation—one in Quebec, one in New Brunswick and 16 in populous Ontario, where nuclear power generates 50 per cent of the province’s electricity. As well, the publicly owned electrical utility, Ontario Hydro, is constructing four new reactors, which are scheduled to begin operating at Darlington, 10' ronto, between 1992 and 1994.
But elsewhere, nuclear power has been sharply rebuffed in the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. In Europe, at least seven countries, including Austria, Denmark and Spain, banned the construction of nuclear plants, and the Swedish government announced in 1986 that it would phase out the country’s 12 nuclear plants by the year 2010.
In the United States, the halt in construction of new nuclear power plants is partly a reflection of a poor safety record by the U.S. industry, which currently operates more than 100 commercial reactors.
In 1987—the most recent year for which figures are available—U.S. nuclear plants reported nearly 3,000 mishaps and 430 emergency shutdowns. As well, 104,458 workers were exposed to measurable doses of radiation. At the same time, testimony at congressional hearings in Washington last year revealed that many of the 16 plants that supply fissionable material for U.S. nuclear weapons operated in flagrant violation of safety procedures. In some cases, the plants are believed to have spilled nuclear contamination into the surrounding communities and countryside. According to evidence at the congressional hearings, at least four of the sites—including the Hanford plant near Richland, Wash., 300 km southeast of Vancouver—are irreversibly con-
taminated and can never be used again. According to some U.S. officials, no technology exists for cleaning up the contamination, and the plants may have to be sealed off to protect the public.
By contrast, Canadian civilian nuclear plants—which, unlike U.S. commercial plants, are operated by publicly owned agencies— appear to have a better safety record, though government agencies do not publish figures on the industry’s safety performance. Still, any mishap involving radioactive substances
is bound to seem alarming. Early in 1987, within the space of a week there were two spills of radioactive heavy water at Ontario’s Bruce nuclear generating station, about 240 km northwest of Toronto. After the first spill, about 250 workers were sent home when officials detected high radiation levels in some parts of the plant. Said John Willis, a Torontobased spokesman for the environmental organization Greenpeace: “Nuclear plants are not safe enough—and they are not going to get safe enough.” Now, the political and economic climate may be shifting in favor of the nuclear industry. In the United States, President George Bush’s two-month-old administration will soon have to deal with rising electrical demand—and the costly reliance on imported oil used as a source of fuel for some generating plants. Those worries, along with alarm about the possibility of global warming, have focused interest on the possibility of developing a new generation of smaller and safer nuclear plants. According to Scott Peters, manager of media services for the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, an extra 120,000 megawatts of electrical power will be needed in the United States by the year 2000.
Added Peters: “We believe that by the mid-1990s, there will have to be a spurt of new power plant construction. We think that the nuclear power plant is safer than any other power plant.”
For its part, the Canadian Nuclear Association—a Toronto-based industry lobby representing AECL, Ontario Hydro and about 100
other bodies—last year launched a multimillion-dollar public information campaign aimed at combatting negative public attitudes about nuclear power. Said Gordon Edwards, president of the Montreal-based Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility: “They are spending taxpayers’ money to convince taxpay-
ers that more of their money should go to AECL.” For its part, AECL, which made its last overseas sale of a Canadian-designed CANDU reactor to Romania in 1981, is seeking new customers. Last year, the corporation offered to install one of its small Slowpoke reactors as an inexpensive power source for the University of Sherbrooke Medical Centre in Quebec. After a public outcry against the project—fuelled by environmental groups—the hospital’s board of directors rejected the plan. Now, negotiations are under way between AECL and the New Brunswick government on the possibility of locating a second CANDU reactor at Pointe Lepreau, N.B.
Meanwhile, the nuclear industry is grappling with one of the toughest nuclear problems: finding a safe system for disposing of radioactive waste. Currently, spent uranium fuel rods from Canadian reactors—which can continue to emit dangerous radiation for up to 500 years—are stored in pools of water at reactor sites across the country. In a search for a better system, AECL scientists are studying the possibility of burying nuclear wastes in titanium canisters 3,000 feet beneath the surface of the Canadian Shield. According to William Hancox, vicepresident for waste management research at AECL, the target date for opening a disposal site—which would cost an estimated $1.7 billion and employ about 625 people—would be around the year 2020. To test the underground storage plan, AECL researchers are already conducting experiments in a laboratory carved out of rock about 1,500 feet underground near Pinawa, Man., 80 km northeast of Winnipeg. But Pinawa will not be the actual storage site. In 1987, the Manitoba legislature passed a bill designed to prevent any nuclear waste from being deposited in the province.
In the end, the arguments against nuclear power may be overshadowed by the need to develop economical new sources of electricity that will not pollute the atmosphere. But in order to win public support for nuclear energy, its proponents will ultimately have to overcome the legacy of Three Mile Island. In a chilling reminder of the hazards of nuclear energy, the $1.7-billion cleanup program at Three Mile Island is still more than two years from completion. And even when officials declare the damaged unit decontaminated, technicians well into the next century will have to monitor the radioactivity lingering in the shell of the wrecked reactor.
MARK NICHOLS with ANNE STEACY in Toronto, DAN BURKE in Montreal, JACK HANNA in Ottawa, JEREMY HART in London and WILLIAM LQWTHER in Washington
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