Tar Heel Tattler - November 2005
Marshall Pitts was a teenager in 1979 when a partial meltdown of a reactor core at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania leaked radiation. “I was old enough to hear the horror stories and what radiation can do to the human body, so it was a scary proposition.”
What a difference 26 years makes. North Carolina’s two biggest power companies are jockeying to be among the first utilities in the nation to build nuclear reactors since Three Mile Island. Thank climbing energy costs, pollution from coal-fired power plants and safer designs. And thank Pitts and others like him. They’ve had a change of heart. He’s mayor of Fayetteville, and he’s interested in having a nuke plant nearby.
Charlotte-based Duke Energy and Raleigh-based Progress Energy already have 11 reactors. A license can take five years and cost $50 million, not to mention another five years and $5 billion to build a two-reactor plant. But nuclear plants run more cheaply than those powered by coal or gas. Plus, incentives recently passed by Congress sweeten the deal.
Why the incentives? Go back to Three Mile Island. Though it caused no injuries or deaths, it spooked millions. Plans for more than 60 reactors in the U.S. have been canceled since. Then, in 1986, the Chernobyl explosion and meltdown in the Ukraine — some estimates put the final toll at 100,000 deaths — seemed to drive the last nail in nuclear power’s coffin. All of the nation’s 103 working electricity-generating reactors were licensed before 1979.
Progress Energy didn’t help the cause with the way it ran its Brunswick plant, near Southport. Progress shut it down in 1992, partly because construction workers in the 1970s had welded bolt heads onto walls, instead of installing bolts, leaving the plant’s emergency generator vulnerable to earthquakes.
Since the plant came back online fully in 1994, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it has operated safely. “It has given us reason to be even more conscious about our operations because we know that is in the past,” Progress spokesman Rick Kimble says.
Now, advocates say, nuclear plants make better neighbors because design and construction techniques have improved. Pitts figures a Progress Energy nuke plant would bring at least 1,000 jobs paying between $16 and $18 an hour. And he thinks the industry’s scary history might be good. “We’ve all seen what can happen, so you take the extra steps to ensure that it won’t happen again.”