News that Three Mile Island nuclear power plant may be shut down in 2019 will reawaken the stuff of nightmares for many of the older generation. Think before Chernobyl, or Fukushima and the horrors we now associate with them, Three Mile Island was the name that spelt fear and dread. In March 1979, one of the plant's two reactors suffered a partial core melt down, resulting from mechanical and human error. Radioactivity was released into the environment in what was the worst commercial nuclear power accident in US history.
Despite official claims that the human health impact was minimal, the accident led to massive protests, in the US and around the world, and the nuclear power industry in the US faced a shattering setback. Within a few years construction of new nuclear power plants had pretty much ground to a halt and the national debate over nuclear power was largely won by its opponents. These included the likes of Jane Fonda, who combined celebrity glamour with activist grit, and the release of her film The China Syndrome just days before the accident gave the issue massive popular cultural exposure.
Now it looks like the plant's days are numbered. The reactor that suffered meltdown was never reopened, and the owner has said that the plant is no longer financially viable, given the competition from natural gas and renewables. And other Pennsylvania nuclear plants are at risk of closure too on economic grounds. For the reality is, that although Three Mile Island may have been iconic in a previous age, its fate is now becoming the new norm. Many reactors, across Europe, the US and beyond, are being closed without replacement.
Close observers may have noticed foreign companies pulling out of bids to take on new power stations here in Britain. Again, the key problem is a financial one, experienced by a number of major nuclear power companies. EDF, Europe's biggest nuclear operator is in significant debt, and the problem is thrown into sharp relief by the fate of Westinghouse. This is the major company that developed the pressurized-water reactor and has been the world's largest provider of nuclear technology. Now it has filed for bankruptcy following major problems with its newest reactor design. Its parent company, Toshiba, is having serious problems too, as a result.
The truth is, this is not going to change. Gas and renewables are getting cheaper. The cost of nuclear power is rising, and it continues to have associated problems that renewables just don't face. The risk of catastrophic accident, the impact of radiation, the unsolved problem of waste storage, the dirty and dangerous nature of the fuel cycle. These are all problems that won't go away, but fortunately there is no need for nuclear, because we have renewable energy. It's time for our politicians to grasp this and kick their outdated nuclear addiction.
Nuclear power, along with nuclear weapons, is part of a tragic phase in twentieth century history which has done too much damage to people and planet. That era is now ending.
That's why we have called the first anti-nuclear power conference in Britain for 30 years. A huge range of experts on nuclear power and renewable energy, along with politicians and activists campaigning for change, will gather this Saturday in London. With a government in crisis, it's vital that we use this time to set out an alternative agenda.