SCOTT SIMON, host:
Thirty years ago today, people in central Pennsylvania awoke to an alarming bulletin.
(Soundbite of archived recording)
Unidentified Announcer: This breaking story has just come in. State police in Harrisburg have been called to the Three Mile nuclear plant, where plant officials have called a general emergency.
SIMON: A malfunction had occurred in the reactor's cooling system at Unit Two. Radiation, an alarming word, was reportedly leaking.
Last weekend we asked listeners to share memories and stories about the incident at Three Mile Island. Deborah Bryant (ph) of nearby Carlisle, Pennsylvania wrote to say that she was driving by the plant when she first heard the news.
Ms. DEBORAH BRYANT: We were looking right at the towers and the steam coming out of the top of them, and the news flash came on. And there I am with my two-and-a-half-year-old, thinking: Great. We'd just moved here and now there's going to be this huge meltdown.
SIMON: Many wrote to say that the scariest part of the event was official confusion about what to do or where to go. Some people were told to just stay indoors. But Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh advised young children and pregnant women within a five-mile radius of the plant to evacuate. Five days after the accident, President Jimmy Carter, a former nuclear engineer himself, visited Three Mile Island to show America that it was safe.
But the incident occurred when most of the American people didn't know much about nuclear power. And much of what they thought they knew came from a movie, "The China Syndrome," where a character playing a scientist warns that the core of a nuclear reactor could easily melt down.
(Soundbite of movie, "The China Syndrome")
Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) The number of people killed would depend on which way the wind is blowing, render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.
SIMON: The movie had been out for just a few weeks. No one was killed or injured at Three Mile Island, not so much as a sprained ankle, as it's often pointed out. Radiation was released but at a level the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said was not dangerous. However, the incident at Three Mile Island raised serious questions about the safety and the future of nuclear power in the United States.
Before we talk about the current debate over nuclear power, we've asked NPR science reporters David Kestenbaum and Richard Harris to bring us up to speed about what's happened in 30 years since Three Mile Island.
Gentlemen, thanks very much for being here. And let me just sit back while the two of you fill us in briefly.
RICHARD HARRIS: Okay. People assume that the nuclear power industry went kaput after Three Mile Island. But in fact there were 65 reactors back then and there are now 104. So actually it wasn't quite so bad.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Yeah, Richard, but you know, those had been ordered in advance. There are actually no nuclear reactors ordered and built since Three Mile Island in the United States.
HARRIS: Okay, fair point. And things really did go downhill in 1986 when the Chernobyl reactor core caught on fire in Russia. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Chernobyl is in Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union in 1986.]
KESTENBAUM: Right. I'm just going to argue with you here on everything. That was in Russia? They didn't have a big containment vessel. There was progress back here. In 1982, we passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to try and find a place to finally stick all the nuclear waste, which the folks in the nuclear industry like to call spent fuel.
HARRIS: And then in 1987 that act was amended with something that people in Nevada call the Screw Nevada Bill, which essentially said eeny-meeny-miney -you - the waste is going to Nevada, were aren't thinking about any other place.
KESTENBAUM: And we spent about maybe $8 billion, maybe more studying the place, trying to figure out whether it will hold up for a million years.
HARRIS: Those studies have been going on. But in fact the U.S. was supposed to already be storing the stuff in Nevada. It's not. The stuff is actually instead piling up in huge concrete containers, where all the reactors are today. So they've had a temporary location for it.
KESTENBAUM: The latest twist now is that the Obama administration has basically set up an Unscrew Nevada Bill. It's not a bill, but they're saying we are not going ahead with Yucca Mountain.
HARRIS: And the industry now says we don't have to solve the nuclear waste problem right away. Since these concrete casks can hold the waste for decades or maybe even centuries, we've got time. Maybe we'll have new technology, figure out something better to do with the stuff.
KESTENBAUM: And as a matter of fact, there are now license applications in for 26 new reactors. So the industry is serious about trying to build more reactors.
HARRIS: They're certainly serious about talking about it.
SIMON: Richard Harris, David Kestenbaum, thanks very much.
KESTENBAUM: You're welcome.
SIMON: Joining us now is Alan McDonald, a nuclear energy analyst at the International Atomic Energy Agency. He joins us from the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria.
Mr. McDonald, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. ALAN MCDONALD (International Atomic Energy Agency): Pleasure to be here.
SIMON: We just heard there are a number of license applications for new reactors in the U.S. How does the U.S. compare to other countries?
Mr. MCDONALD: In terms of license applications, it has quite a few. But actually, most of the construction now in the world is in Asia. Twenty-eight of the 44 reactors under construction right now are in Asia. So in terms of construction, we're hardly at the head of the queue.
SIMON: It's estimated, I understand, that the United States gets about 20 percent of its energy from nuclear power. How does that compare with other countries?
Mr. MCDONALD: The world as a whole gets about 14 percent of its electricity from nuclear. The country that gets the greatest percentage is France, with 77 percent. But the big growth countries, India or China, get very little right now. China only gets two percent of its electricity from nuclear and India gets two and a half percent.
SIMON: I have an impression that one thing that might be different over the face of 30 years is that in addition to any anxieties that a great number of people have over the safety of nuclear power in and of itself, there's certainly more concern than there was 30 years ago about the security of the places where nuclear energy is created.
I wonder if you could share any concerns you have about that. Is it what it should be around the world?
Mr. MCDONALD: Well, the agency, particularly after 9/11, really ramped up its activities significantly with a lot of assistance from the United States in security, creating guidelines, and giving lots of advice to countries about how to secure their borders better, how to secure their facilities better. So a lot of that has been done.
We track incidents, and I think the numbers are still a lot higher than people would like.
SIMON: What's an incident?
Mr. MCDONALD: Oh, somebody finds some nuclear material crossing a border that wasn't - wasn't reported.
SIMON: That's serious.
Mr. MCDONALD: That is serious. I mean most of the amounts are very...
SIMON: I had no idea that happened.
Mr. MCDONALD: Most of the amounts are extremely small. But nonetheless, we track 'em all and we try to help countries get the number to zero.
SIMON: Is it possible for a country - Iran I suppose being the most prominent example in the world right now - to develop a capacity for nuclear power that doesn't open the door to developing a nuclear weapon?
Mr. MCDONALD: Sure. In fact, most countries that have nuclear power don't have the capacity for a nuclear weapon at all. The fuel that's used in most nuclear power plants operate with enriched uranium above five percent enrichment. And to have a uranium weapon you need to be in the high 90 percents. And if you don't have the equipment for enriching uranium, then you just aren't going to get there.
SIMON: That was Alan McDonald, nuclear energy analyst at the International Atomic Energy Agency that monitors nuclear programs for the U.N. The U.S. and other member nations suspect that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. Iran claims that its nuclear program is solely to generate power.
Finally, we're joined by Dan Reicher, former assistant secretary of energy under President Clinton and now director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google. Thirty years ago, Mr. Reicher was a student at Dartmouth College who managed nonetheless to get involved with the president's commission on the accident at Three Mile Island.
He heard our callout last weekend and called us with a distinctive story. Dan Reicher joins us from Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. DAN REICHER (Former Assistant Secretary of Energy): Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: How did you get involved with the president's commission to study the event?
Mr. REICHER: Well, shortly after the accident, President Carter appointed John Kemeny, who was the president of Dartmouth, to head a commission. The day after the announcement, I said I'll go sit in the Dartmouth president's parking spot and see if I can land a job. He declined to talk to me and drove off.
So my dear mother bought a plane ticket to Washington and got down to the commission and they said, well, you're too young, no jobs for someone like you who's so inexperienced. But if you want to run the Xerox machine, we're looking for someone. One day the lawyers asked me to return a rental car they had used on a trip to investigate the company that actually built the Three Mile Island reactor. And they said be sure to clean out the rental car.
Well, I returned the car and the lawyer said, so where are the box of documents in the trunk? And I said, Oops. I convinced the rental agency to tell me who had rented the car, and they contacted this couple, an Ogallala Sioux couple from North Dakota. They remembered a doorman at the hotel taking the box, and finally found him and said, You know, I remembered that box; we sent it down to the basement and it was incinerated. And I said, Oops, that's going to be a problem.
SIMON: I know of someone else who's going to be incinerated too if you don't find that box.
Mr. REICHER: Exactly. They weren't happy when I got back to work, but fortunately the documents were copies and the lawyers subpoenaed the box again. And the new box came in and it ended up on a lawyer's desk instead of being stacked with the hundreds of other boxes of documents in a closet, some of which, truth be told, never got opened.
And when he opened the box, the lawyer found what was the smoking gun of the whole investigation. Eighteen months earlier, a similar nuclear reactor in Ohio had experienced the same problem as Three Mile Island: a valve got stuck open. And in the Ohio case the operators were able to shut the valve. At Three Mile Island, for various reasons, they didn't. And the reactor lost its cooling water and melted down.
The Three Mile Island owners sued the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, arguing that had they gotten better notice of the Ohio valve problem, they actually could've avoided the accident. My little blunder with the rental car exposed a critical element of the accident that frankly might not otherwise have come to light.
SIMON: As we've mentioned, of course, you were an assistant secretary of energy in the Clinton administration and now are with Google. Is there a future for nuclear power?
Mr. REICHER: I think that in fact there is. At Google, we recently did a study of what U.S. energy mix might look like in 2030 if we made a serious national commitment to fighting the climate crisis. And the study gives a great push to renewable power like wind and geothermal in weaning ourselves off coal. But we also assume a role for nuclear power. In fact by 2030 we assume that the construction of a modest number of new nuclear plants; we'll see some retirements of some of the oldest reactors currently in the fleet. So it definitely will have a role, assuming again that we can avoid a future accident that really kicks the chair out from underneath this industry.
SIMON: Dan Reicher, director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google. Thank you so much.
Mr. REICHER: Thank you, Scott.