On March 16, 1979, Hollywood released a run-of-the-mill film that might have been rather unremarkable had the fictional plot not played out in real life while the movie was still in theaters. The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas, features a reporter who witnesses a nuclear power plant incident that power company executives subsequently attempt to cover up. Many days pass before the full extent of the meltdown surfaces. Just 12 days after The China Syndrome premiered, operators at the Unit 2 nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, received abnormally high temperature readings from the containment building's sensors.
They ignored them.
Many hours passed before the operators realized that the facility they were standing in had entered into partial core meltdown. Power company executives attempted to trivialize the incident and many days passed before the full extent of the meltdown surfaced.
The China Syndrome went viral. When star Michael Douglas appeared on NBC's The Tonight Show, host Johnny Carson quipped, "Boy, you sure have one hell of a publicity agent!" The staged nuclear leak filmed in the back lots of Hollywood and the real nuclear leak on Three Mile Island became conjoined, feeding into one another, each event becoming more vividly salient in the eyes of the public than if they had occurred independently. The intense media and political fallout from the leak at Three Mile Island, perhaps more than the leak itself, marked the abrupt end of the short history of nuclear power development in the United States.
Nuclear industry officials regularly accuse their critics of unfairly brandishing the showmanship of disaster as if it were characteristic of the entire industry while downplaying the solid safety record of most nuclear facilities. Indeed, meltdowns like the ones at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima don't occur as frequently as oil spills. But then, the risks that people associate with nuclear leaks are inordinately more frightening. As with oil spills, industry officials frame meltdowns as accidents, almost without exception. Alternatively, we could choose to frame nuclear power activities as highly unstable undertakings that are bound to expel radioactive secretions into the surrounding communities and landscapes over time.
For some concerned citizens, nuclear power is an opportunity for low-carbon and independent energy generation, while for others it's a guarantee of nuclear proliferation and fallout risks. Greens in Germany, for instance, rail against nuclear power. Meanwhile, environmentalists in Britain frequently support it. In Japan, nuclear energy risks remained conceptually separated from the fallout horrors of World War II until the March 2011 meltdowns at Fukushima folded those perceptions together into the nation's history.
The fallout at Fukushima contaminated a large swath of Japan. However, the fallout incurred by the nuclear industry itself was not limited to the island nation. The Fukushima meltdowns prompted nuclear cancellations across the globe.
To capably assess possible nuclear futures following this moment of crisis, we must first interrogate nuclear power's past. The successes and failures of modern nuclear power facilities have not hinged on the kind of technical limitations that surround alternative energy technologies such as solar, wind, and biofuels. Nor have they been beleaguered by the threat of eventual resource scarcity associated with oil, gas, and coal (There's plenty of uranium fuel on our planet, both in the ground and in ubiquitous seawater.) Rather, the coming generations of nuclear power will pivot on something equally foreboding: those same rusty hinges upon which the nuclear establishment has swung for decades.
Hinge 1: An Enduring Dilemma
Travel 200 miles off the northeast coast of Norway into the Arctic Ocean toward the shores of Novaya Zemlya Island and you'll see seals, walrus, and aquatic birds, as well as numerous species of fish, such as herring, cod, and pollack, much as you'd expect. …