The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has authorized the construction and operation of two duel-unit nuclear power plants in February for the plant in Georgia and in March for the plant in South Carolina. Georgia's plant was the first approved since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.
Given the severity of the accident, it is not surprising that the approval for this plant took over 30 years. However, a bit of research reveals that the Three Mile Island accident was but one of many reasons for the 30-year lull in new nuclear power plant construction.
The accident involving Unit-2 at the Three Mile Island power plant resulted from a combination of mechanical failure and human error. The nuclear reactor's coolant leaked, causing damage to the reactor core and radioactive material then escaped, leading to the evacuation of the residents in the surrounding areas. In the end, nearly half of the nuclear fuel melted with of third of this sinking to the bottom of the reactor pressure vessel.
After this accident, the NRC ordered an extension of the suspension of Unit-1, which happened to be in cold shutdown for refueling and ordered the shutdown of six other reactors designed by the same company as the damaged Unit-2. Even so, aside from the Unit-1 reactor, which due to lawsuits took almost 6 years to be brought back online, all of the other suspended reactors were up and running in less than six months. This is completely different from the current "Zero Nuclear Power" movement in Japan.
What is more surprising is that in the period from 1980 through 1996, 52 of the current 104 nuclear plants currently in America began operation. These plants were either under construction or in the midst of the approval process in the time leading up to the Three Mile Island accident and afterwards these plants quietly went into use.
The 30-year lull in the approval for new plant construction is nothing more than a drop in applications. This growing lack of enthusiasm for nuclear plants is likely due to a fall in demand for electric power, the growing costs related to construction and maintenance due to the increased safety regulations after the Three Mile Island accident and the improving technology that led to the increased competitiveness of shale gas. The decreased interest in nuclear power was due to these economic considerations.
Even so, America has recently increased the operational lifetime of their current nuclear reactors from 40 years to 60 years and is presently fulfilling 20 percent of its power demand with nuclear energy.
In March of this year, when in Korea for the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama stated that "in the United States, we've restarted our nuclear industry as part of a comprehensive strategy to develop every energy source" and is championing the development of small modular nuclear reactors.
Although, as the first severe nuclear accident, Three Mile Island shook the world, the experience of going through the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the Fukushima accident last year made clear the different levels of danger involved between the American and other accidents. The difference in the frequency of earthquakes between Japan as compared to America is also not to be overlooked.
Even when calculating the difference between the Japanese and American accidents, why is it that the post-incident reactions were so expressly different?
What the Americans have and the Japanese lack, is the ability to, after a severe accident, calmly deal with new circumstances, avoid emotional arguments and make a balanced and rational set of options from which to choose. After the Three Mile Island accident, the Americans took the stance of improving their nuclear safety measures and were realistic about employing the useful tools at their disposal.