4 - The Construction Morass  pp. 111-144

The Construction Morass

By Daniel Pope

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It is easy but not altogether useful to mock the aspirations of nuclear power's promoters in their heyday. Electricity too cheap to meter, power plants without pollution, the alchemy of the breeder reactor – these all ring hollow today, three decades after the last reactor order was placed. Unexpected forces have buffeted the once-staid electrical industry. New paradigms and panaceas appear, and the brave new atomic future looks to many like yesterday's distraction and today's burden. When nuclear energy makes headlines today in the United States, the topics often are decommissioning, accidents, malfunctions, or the “stranded costs” of generating facilities too expensive in an era of intensified competition. Hindsight, however, may blind us to the reasons why nuclear power attracted so many in the 1960s and 1970s or lead us to accept oversimplified accounts of the demise of that era's nuclear dream. Nor will it provide answers to the very real energy dilemmas we face today.

Those who are not specialists tend to explain the decline of nuclear power in the United States by two vivid events: the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. There is no denying their importance. Public opinion polls showed a qualitative shift away from support of nuclear power after Three Mile Island. In 1986, the human and environmental damage spread through a broad region, alarmed the citizens of Europe, east and west, and shocked the globe.