Twenty-five years ago, the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island decimated what had been a bright future for nuclear power in the United States. While no one was killed and only a small amount of radioactivity escaped, no American utility has dared to build a new nuclear power plant since.
But the Three Mile Island accident has faded from public memory, and power blackouts, rising natural-gas prices, and concerns about greenhouse gases have changed public attitudes. Here and there, the nuclear industry is beginning to stir. Two groups have filed for federal licensing, with one plant slated for Virginia. The licensing process is expected to take at least six years.
Today, a fifth of the United States’ electricity comes from 103 commercial nuclear reactors. Existing purveyors of nuclear power, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority and Exelon, have been gradually updating their facilities—and touting the value of "emission-free, low-cost power." The Bush administration has committed itself to a major effort in getting new nukes off the ground, and its incentives include subsidized construction costs and "streamlined" licensing procedures. Meanwhile, many critics are not satisfied with the industry"s assurances, promising to fight any application for a new plant. Nuclear safety in the wake of terrorist threats is a major issue, as is the waste storage issue.