On December 1, 1969, Jersey Central Power & Light initiated fission in the fuel rods of the nation's first boiling-water nuclear reactor—one of 31 ultimately built in the U.S. The first "turnkey" plant, Oyster Creek nuclear generating station in New Jersey was sold for less than $100 million in 1964—a price well below what it would ultimately cost to build the reactor. The point was to prove that a nuclear power facility could be built as cheaply as a coal-fired power plant, and the key to that was a smaller safety system. As the recent meltdown in Fukushima showed, the design of these reactors' systems, such as the donut-shaped "suppression pool" of water meant to cool the reactor in a crisis, showed flaws—flaws identified by regulators decades ago.
"Recent events have highlighted the safety disadvantages of pressure-suppression containments," words that could have been written today but instead appeared in a memo from safety official Stephen Hanauer (pdf) to his fellow workers at the now-defunct U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1972. "What are the safety advantages of pressure suppression, apart from cost saving?"
Yet, Oyster Creek continues to operate today, churning out electricity for Exelon Corp. Were it not for a requirement that it add cooling towers, Oyster Creek would probably continue to operate for decades—that added expense prompted owner Exelon to announce plans to close the plant in 2019. But on March 21, one of Oyster Creek's sister plants—Entergy Corp.'s Vermont Yankee—received permission to operate for another 20 years, despite a recent history that includes leaks, burst cooling pipes and misplaced fuel rods.
"The acceptance of pressure-suppression containment concepts by all elements of the nuclear field…is firmly embedded in the conventional wisdom," wrote AEC official Joseph Hendrie in response to Hanauer's suggestion. (pdf) "Reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power. It would throw into question the continued operation of licensed plants…and would generally create more turmoil than I can stand thinking about."
The question remains, however: Are such old nuclear reactors safe?
The U.S. has 104 reactors scattered throughout the country, producing 20 percent of the nation's electricity—and 70 percent of our electricity that emits relatively little CO2 pollution, a point emphasized by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. The oldest is Oyster Creek; the youngest is the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Browns Ferry unit No. 1 in Alabama, which first went online in 1974 and underwent a refurbishment that brought it back online four years ago after more than two decades out of commission.
These reactors could face extraordinary challenges, such as the recent twin blows of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which knocked out connections to the local power grid, followed by a wall of water that destroyed the fuel tanks for backup diesel generators and flooded critical electrical equipment, crippling the boiling-water reactors at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan. "Our [eight diesel generators] are protected from the seismic and hydrology hazards expected in the area," in addition to being buried in hardened facilities, says TVA spokesman, Terry Johnson, which operates three such boiling-water reactors at Browns Ferry.