And, even in the case of Three Mile Island, a catastrophe was averted, although nearby residents were evacuated and the damaged Unit 2 waits to be dismantled. More recently, the problems at Davis–Besse resulted in one independent contractor receiving a jail sentence and FirstEnergy paying $33.5 million in civil and criminal penalties—and no accident occurred. "The agency is committed to making sure that nothing like that ever happens again," says the NRC's Burnell.
But aging nuclear power plants may make that goal impossible. In 2006 the NRC granted Vermont Yankee permission to increase its operating temperature in order to generate more power. In 2007 a sagging bracket in the wooden cooling tower at the Vermont facility caused a cooling pipe to burst, and last year, for example, even a new bracket sagged enough to cause a pipe leak.
And human error led the operators of Vermont Yankee to misplace segments from two spent fuel rods, a chronic problem with nuclear material. Plutonium from the Manhattan Project ended up in a safe at the nuclear dump in Hanford, Wash., and a U.S. Department of Energy survey in 1996 of all highly enriched uranium produced in the country revealed that 3.2 tons of it is missing. Most of the world's radiation-related fatal accidents occur because of such misplaced or mishandled radioactive material, such as that in Goiania, Brazil, in which two junkyard workers died of radiation poisoning.
At the same time, Vermont Yankee provides as much as one third of that state's electricity at a cost of 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, well below any other generating source, and it provides 220 jobs to the region. It has operated relatively safely for 35 years and the NRC is currently considering whether to extend its license to operate for another two decades, to 2032.
"It is the oldest plant still in operation and has had a myriad of problems from collapsing cooling towers to losing a spent fuel rod," says Oona Adams, a union organizer who grew up in Guilford, Vt., near the plant. "As a child, we had a radio supplied by Vermont Yankee that broadcast weather and also served as an early warning device. Early warning is not a good phrase for kids and it's one we heard in school, at home and when the sirens blast out a test anthem every first Saturday of the month."
Similar extensions have been granted to 51 nuclear power plants since 2000 and 19 more are pending, including Oyster Creek in New Jersey. "We don't believe that nuclear power is a religious thing, it's a business thing," says Craig Nesbit, vice president of communications for Exelon, which owns 17 nuclear power plants, including Oyster Creek. "A lot of what happens with the future of nuclear in this country depends on how well we continue to run these plants. We have a pretty good track record for nuclear power plant operation in the U.S. and that has to continue. We have to have continued public and political support for nuclear in this country. We hold the key to that in our own hands."