After World War II efforts were made in America and around the world to develop the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Since then over 100 nuclear power facilities have been built and brought on line within the continental United States. Over 80 of these are located east of the Mississippi in the Midwest, East and South, while about 20 are located in the West. The U.S. has sizable Uranium reserves, which rank it fourth largest in the world. In addition, the government provided considerable subsidies to the developing nuclear industry and by the early nineteen fifties and sixties it was possible to foresee a time when the country would produce most or even all of its energy through nuclear power generation. The fuel was readily available, very little of it was used to create large amounts of energy, the process created no black sooty particles which were belched into the air, no toxic gases. It was almost too good to believe.
Of course, radioactive by-products were created, but we knew about them. We were told and that they were being isolated as waste and kept distant from human populations. So, we felt safe. Then when the facility at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had what was first called an accident, and later a partial meltdown, new words entered our vocabulary. We learned more and more about radioactivity and about how exposure to it could cause premature death from cancers, compromise the immune system, and create yet other health problems. We learned that in some cases radioactive waste was accumulating and in some cases being dumped, sometimes into rivers and streams. So we all began asking questions we should have been asking all along.
It then became clear that without sizable government subsidies the nuclear industry might be a great deal more expensive than it seems to be at present, and also that there is an enormous amount of radioactive contamination that is accumulating that will need to be hidden somewhere well away from humans essentially forever or somehow destroyed.
While America has had no Chernobyl or Fukushima type accident, Three Mile Island has been enough. Indeed, very small amounts of radioactivity were released Three Mile Island and the reactor was eventually completely decommissioned and the area decontaminated. As far as we know residents in the area of Three Mile Island were not subjected to lethal amounts of radiation or even enough radioactivity to produce early death from cancer or bone marrow or other health difficulties typical of excessive radiation exposure, that were even remotely like those seen Chernobyl and that we may yet see as a result of Fukushima.
In addition to Three Mile Island, we have had in the U.S. seven other accidents at nuclear facilities, none of which resulted in serious measurable release of radioactivity. But, in each case the cost in property damage has been in excess of $140 million for each, a trivial amount in a system measuring real money only in the billions or trillions. Nevertheless, it reminds us of our vulnerability, and in this country and in many others, it has slowed the rate of development of nuclear power.
In 2008-2010 there seemed to be some renewed interest in advancing nuclear power in America once again. Then the world saw what happened at Fukushima in 2011 and talk of more new nuclear power plants has once again faded. As we continue to decomission and bring off line our aging nuclear plants, we should plan to make a concerted effort to shift to clean renewable energy for the future.