Charles Komanoff


"10 Blows That Stopped Nuclear Power"

Reflections on the U.S. Nuclear Industry's 25 Lean Years

by Charles Komanoff, Komanoff Energy Associates

This article first appeared in Electricity Journal in Jan/Feb 1991. The version presented here is slightly altered and dates from the late 1990s.

For 25 years, nuclear power's fortunes in the U.S. have followed a downward course. Once heralded as the prime resource for meeting future electricity needs, atomic energy is now struggling against extinction. Although nuclear power plants provide over one-fifth of US electricity, this share is far below expectations and is starting to shrink as high operating costs force some plants into retirement. Prospects for a new generation of improved reactors have largely been foreclosed by the lack of a foolproof disposal system for nuclear waste and by fierce competition from efficient small-scale generators powered variously by natural gas, wind and sunlight.

Few foresaw this in the early 1970s, when utilities anticipated a third consecutive decade of doubled electricity use and ordered up dozens of reactors to meet expected demand. Their judgment appeared confirmed in 1973, when the Arab oil embargo demonstrated the dangers of oil dependence. Petroleum prices tripled and coal prices doubled, apparently settling nuclear electricity's all-important cost contest with fossil fuels. To government and corporate chiefs beset by petroleum cartels and militant miners, power from the atom, seemingly immune to market gyrations or mass organizing, appeared a godsend.

Virtually overnight, nuclear power was enshrined as the energy source for America and the rest of the industrialized world. The 1974 Project Independence report—the first comprehensive energy strategy by a US Administration—assigned primary responsibility for new energy supply to nuclear power. One thousand reactors, 30 times the number then operating, would supply the bulk of U.S. electricity by the end of the century. The scale was enormous; the projected growth in nuclear generation output was three times the output of all of the country's power stations—fossil, hydro and nuclear—combined.

Today, these prophecies have been scattered to the wind. Only 110 reactors are operable; at least 120 others have been canceled, and for the first time in 40 years not a single new nuke is under construction in America. Ironically, the last U.S. orders for nuclear plants that were actually completed were placed in October 1973 (for the Palo Verde plant in Arizona), the same month as the oil embargo.

What happened? In economic terms, nuclear power fell victim to financial pressures, squeezed by the cost of the effort to make reactors acceptably safe and a slackening in electricity requirements. But this neat summary, while true enough, skirts a rich and vital history, particularly the fateful decade of the 1970s. From the 1973 oil embargo through the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and its aftermath, the nuclear industry suffered one setback after another, until the official consensus for nuclear power frayed and finally unraveled.

This article describes 10 of these setbacks—10 blows that helped bring growth in nuclear power in the U.S. to a standstill. Some of these setbacks are well-known, others are relatively obscure. Some originated in faulty reactor machinery or management, while others struck at nuclear power from outside. As we shall see, all 10 events were given visibility and force by an antinuclear movement that identified nuclear power as fundamentally unsafe, uneconomic, unnecessary and undemocratic and which followed Einstein's urging to resolve nuclear issues not behind closed doors but in village squares across America.

1. Arab Oil Embargo—1973

Far from clinching the case for nuclear power as indispensable and cheap, the Arab oil embargo put a hex on the U.S. economy that dampened nuclear prospects for years to come. Hyper-inflation and high interest rates brought economic and electricity growth to a screeching halt, rendering many newly ordered power plants superfluous and unable to be financed by suddenly cash-poor utilities. Nuclear plants, more capital-intensive than fossil plants and with longer lead times, were the first to be jettisoned.

But that wasn't all. The rise in gasoline prices and electric rates touched off by the embargo institutionalized the "energy crisis" as a burning public concern. For the most part energy issues had been cast in environmental terms and debated on the fringe; now they entered the mainstream on waves of populist outrage. Where government and industry tried to portray nuclear power as an antidote to oil imports, citizen activists unmasked the atom as a creature of Energy, Inc., an extension of corporate dominance in another guise. Thus, while strengthening the realpolitik rationale for nuclear power, the oil embargo carved broad new channels for pressing public opposition to nuclear expansion.

2. India Explodes a Bomb—1974

After the oil embargo, few interest groups in America embraced nuclear power more eagerly than the American foreign-policy establishment—the network of government officials, insiders and academics centered in Washington, New York and Cambridge, Mass. Their enthusiasm was reflected in the Project Independence recommendations then being drafted, and their continued backing was key to maintaining political momentum for unfettered expansion of nuclear power.

The establishment's support was tempered, however, when India detonated its first nuclear bomb, in June 1974. India became only the sixth member of the Nuclear Club, but the first to employ civilian nuclear power as the path to manufacturing nuclear weapons. The national security appeal of energy independence now had to be balanced against the destabilizing effects of nuclear proliferation. When the federal government slowed development of plutonium fuels during 1975-76, fears of shortages of fissile materials helped drive up the price of uranium. Although the price run-up proved transitory, it helped undercut the argument that nuclear power could safeguard the industrial economies against spiraling fuel prices.

3. NRC Replaces AEC—1975

Evidence of reactor dangers began mounting in the early 1970s, as the first commercial-size reactors broke down with alarming frequency and as crucial tests of reactor safety equipment by the national laboratories failed to validate theoretical models of orderly, containable accidents. As charges of hushed-up safety concerns grew widespread, the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) double charge of reactor promotion and regulation became untenable. Congress passed the Energy Reorganization Act of 1974, investing the AEC's regulatory functions into a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Severed from direct promotional responsibility, the NRC proved somewhat more safety-minded than the AEC, particularly as a burgeoning antinuke movement publicized reactor mishaps and industry cover-ups. Imposition of new regulatory requirements accelerated, narrowing nuclear power's cost advantage over coal.

Concurrent with the demise of the AEC, Congress abolished the industry's protector, the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, ending the pro-nuclear stranglehold over congressional supervision. For the first time, reactor regulation became subject to serious scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Oversight was spread among almost a dozen congressional committees and subcommittees, multiplying the number of forums for spotlighting nuclear power's problems.

4. Fire at Browns Ferry—1975

The NRC was scarcely a month old when the nuclear power industry suffered its most spectacular accident yet. On a Saturday night in March 1975, workers using a candle to locate leaks in insulation ignited a fire that burned over 2,000 cables at the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Browns Ferry plant in Alabama. With electrical controls disabled and smoke filling the control rooms, it took seven hours to shut down the plant's two reactors. One unit came perilously close to boiling off its cooling water-the last step before nuclear fuel meltdown.

The Browns Ferry fire was a body blow to nuclear power. It legitimized critics of reactor safety, including skeptics within the new NRC, helping ensure that the new agency would move aggressively to fulfill its regulatory mandate. The accident also underscored nuclear power's economic fragility, as a mishap started by a candle shut down two reactors for 19 months and eventually led to expensive retrofits to make all plants more fire-resistant. Critics who had targeted the industry's under-60% operating average as its Achilles heel now had graphic evidence to support their charges.

5. Engineers Switch Sides—1976

In early 1976, three managers in General Electric's nuclear engineering division and a senior project manager at the NRC resigned to work for anti-nuclear organizations. The well-orchestrated "defections" garnered headlines across the country. Nuclear opponents saw their credibility bolstered and their technical firepower increased, while the sense grew among the media and the public that something was rotten inside the nuclear establishment.

The "GE 3" have thrived for the past two decades as technical advisors on nuclear dangers for governmental agencies and citizen activists throughout the U.S. and abroad. The NRC alumnus, Robert Pollard, who retired this year as senior nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, was arguably the antinuclear movement's indispensable man, providing expertise and hope to activists in countless struggles.

6. Amory Lovins Recasts the Energy Debate—1976

Later that year, physicist-environmentalist Amory Lovins published a remarkable essay, "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken," in Foreign Affairs, the "bible" of the foreign-policy establishment. Where almost all former discussions of energy centered around the cost and availability of energy fuels and technologies, Lovins urged that policy attend to the thermodynamic match between supply and end-usage—lighting, motor drive, space heating, and the like. With this approach, energy sources could be dichotomized between "hard" and "soft." The former were centralized technologies such as nuclear and coal power plants, whose huge scale encumbered them with large "system" costs—unreliability, rigidity and far-flung environmental and political turmoil—factors that rendered them unaffordable. The soft path, employing renewable sources and conservation technologies, was superior not only economically but logistically.

Lovins' essay, and his book elaborating it, Soft Energy Paths, was a tour de force that reconceptualized the entire energy debate. He held out an enticing, almost irresistible vision of a non-nuclear future that also avoided over-reliance on fossil fuels. Lovins' technical brilliance, expressed in extraordinarily lucid syntheses of cost and technical data from researchers around the world, led even some nuclear enthusiasts to re-examine their deep-seated convictions. At the same time, Lovins' application of Jeffersonian ideals to energy policy inspired citizen-activists to redouble their challenges to nuclear power's safety, efficacy and necessity. Transcending the nuclear debate, today's least-cost planning paradigm, based on "demand-side" resources and non-utility generation, stems largely from Lovins' seminal work.

7. Seabrook Occupation—1977

Antinuclear protest reached a new plateau on April 30, 1977, when 18,000 non-violent demonstrators under the banner of the Clamshell Alliance occupied the site of the proposed Seabrook reactor in New Hampshire. The size of the demonstration, and the solidarity and spirit shown by the 1,400 protesters who were jailed for several days, galvanized antinuclear activists around the country. Similar alliances sprang up in California (the Abalone Alliance), Illinois (Prairie Alliance), Louisiana (Musselshell Alliance) and dozens of other "bio-regions." The alliances melded legal intervention, expert advocacy and grassroots mobilization to stop reactor licensing and construction and to institute conservation, renewable energy and public control of energy policy.

Almost two decades later, the influence of the Seabrook occupation can still be felt. Although some plants targeted by the protesters ultimately were completed—Diablo Canyon and Seabrook 1 most prominently—the price to the utilities was often ruinous in effort and cost, including bankruptcy for Seabrook's lead owner, Public Service Co. of New Hampshire.

8. Three Mile Island—1979

If the 1973 oil embargo was the early date of reckoning in energy policy, then the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island 2 reactor in Pennsylvania is the indisputable dividing line in the history of nuclear power in the U.S. Nuclear events are either pre-TMI or post-TMI, reflecting the accident's influence on every aspect of the nuclear power struggle.

Throughout the 1970s, the absence of any population-threatening accident remained the nuclear industry's last line of defense against mounting opposition and costs. That line was shattered on the morning of March 28, 1979, by a complex, poorly understood sequence of equipment failures and operator errors that began, ironically, in the "non-nuclear" portion of Unit 2 and left the reactor teetering on the edge of catastrophe for days. Weeks later, the reactor core was found destroyed to an extent that nuclear developers had rejected as impossible and which regulators had placed outside the "design basis" used to set criteria for accident-mitigating systems.

The TMI accident revealed shocking lapses in nuclear regulation when it became known that "precursor" accidents at other U.S. reactors had been ignored. But above all, TMI was a spectacle that riveted the nation and demolished the credibility of the nuclear industry and the NRC. At a time when the pro-nuclear forces could have been exploiting the doubling of oil prices in the wake of the Iranian revolution, they were consumed with a sisyphean task of damage control. TMI's uncanny timing, on the heels of a blockbuster movie depicting a reactor accident threatening "an area the size of Pennsylvania," convinced some observers that nuclear power was irrevocably jinxed.

To begin regaining a modicum of public trust, the NRC was forced to tighten design criteria and plant surveillance to an unprecedented degree. Utilities and reactor manufacturers and builders, who habitually contested each new regulation tooth and nail, had little choice but to submit. The new round of design reviews, equipment standards and inspections continued for several years, leading to sharply higher costs to build reactors and spreading cost escalation to plant operation, maintenance, repairs and backfitting. Another legacy of TMI, evacuation planning, added a further hurdle to reactor operation and ultimately doomed the Shoreham reactor in Long Island, NY.

9. Tight Money Supply—1979

In October 1979, the Federal Reserve Board responded to six years of rapid inflation by revamping monetary policy to control the nation's money supply directly by manipulating bank reserves rather than by varying the federal funds rate. The policy eventually curbed inflation, but only after several years of record-high "real" (inflation-ad-justed) interest rates had further undercut nuclear power's competitiveness with less capital-intensive alternatives.

The resulting back-to-back recessions of 1980 and 1981-82 wiped out several years of electricity demand growth and forced utilities to cancel dozens of nuclear plants. Today's era of moderate-to-low inflation arrived too late to salvage these plants, as utilities recognized that stable price levels would make it impossible to push through the huge rate increases required to amortize the reactors' high costs.

10. Reversal at Diablo—1981

Following the election of Ronald Reagan as president, nuclear power proponents looked to the new administration's anti-regulatory ideology and "can-do" attitude for the lifting of constraints on nuclear power licensing and operation. The September, 1981 award of an operating license for the long-delayed Diablo Canyon reactors, sited along the earthquake-prone California coast, seemed a particularly positive sign. Yet a week after obtaining the license, and in the midst of a site occupation by thousands of protesters during plant startup, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. disclosed that it had inadvertently reversed pipe restraints between the two reactors, virtually disabling their seismic protection systems.

This bombshell deeply embarrassed the nuclear industry and halted the Reagan Administration's campaign to streamline reactor licensing in its tracks, almost before it began. It also drew attention to shoddy "quality assurance" procedures at other reactors, including Zimmer, Midland and South Texas. Three months later, the new NRC chairman, a Reagan appointee, upbraided the industry in a nationally publicized speech. It would be years before reactor owners and builders would again assert significant control over nuclear regulation, and by then any possibility of new reactor orders had slipped away in the face of continued high costs and public mistrust.

My chronology stops here. I exclude the subsequent Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) fiasco, where cost overruns caused four reactor cancellations amid the biggest municipal bond default in U.S. history, and even the Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, since, in my view, nuclear expansion was essentially foreclosed without them. While Chernobyl has certainly added to pressures to shut operating reactors, its impact on U.S. nuclear power development has never rivaled that of Three Mile Island, lacking the immediacy and drama that made TMI such a signal event.

Let us look back at the 10 Blows as a group. Only three of them were self-inflicted—the Browns Ferry and TMI accidents and the Diablo Canyon screw-up. Two events are also nuclear-related though quite disparate—India's nuclear explosion and the changeover from AEC into NRC. Two other blows are "macro" events-the 1973 Arab oil embargo, and the recession of 1979-82. These discouraged nuclear development in paradoxically opposite ways, the first by inflating reactor costs just as nuclear construction was taking off, the second by extinguishing inflation when utilities needed it to reduce the real carrying costs of their nuclear debts.

The remaining three blows directly involve facets of the antinuclear movement—the grassroots Alliances, conscience-driven engineers and "soft energy" proponents. Yet the mark of activists is evident in all ten blows and, indeed, in the entire quarter-century withering of nuclear power. Without the antinuke movement's ceaseless public agitation, education and organizing, none of these events, save for the TMI accident, would have been more than a momentary blip in nuclear power's relentless ascent. Only a mass movement could engender a social fabric and a political context in which the dangers of nuclear power could be made manifest, in which necessary and costly reactor safeguards could be made mandatory, in which protest and resistance could be nurtured, and in which alternatives could be legitimized.

The 10 blows, fascinating in themselves, are mere signposts. The beginnings of a victory belong to an indomitable citizens' movement.

The author directs Komanoff Energy Associates in New York, a consulting resource for municipal and state agencies and environmental and citizens organizations. His research on nuclear cost escalation anticipated and chronicled the nuclear sector's financial meltdown in the 1980s. For the past decade Komanoff has focused on alternatives to car-dependence, including organizing New York City bicyclists and researching equitable road-pricing strategies.