A nuclear accident made Three Mile Island infamous. AI’s needs may revive it.

The dormant power plant renowned as the site of the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history - Three Mile Island - may be switched back on, driven in part by the ravenous energy appetites of artificial-intelligence developers.

The plant along the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, where a partial reactor meltdown in 1979 sent the nation into a panic and the nuclear industry reeling, is part of a broader push backed by the White House to bring mothballed nuclear facilities back to life, something that has never before been done in this country.

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To the alarm of some nuclear safety advocates, owner Constellation Energy is laying the groundwork for a recommissioning with recent tests at Three Mile Island’s dormant Unit 1 reactor. Shut down in 2019, Unit 1 sits next to the former Unit 2 reactor that partially melted down 45 years ago. The company told investors recently it is weighing its restart, a process that would take several years.

“We’ve found the plant is in pretty good shape,” CEO Joe Dominguez said in an interview. “We think it is technically feasible to restart it.”

Not long ago, the nuclear power industry was consumed with shutting plants down, many of them sunk by an inability to compete financially with natural gas and highly subsidized wind and solar power. But Three Mile Island is part of a burst of fresh activity at mothballed plants as tech companies, manufacturers and energy regulators scramble to find enough zero emissions electricity to keep up with surging demand.

Elsewhere, the owner of the mothballed Palisades nuclear plant in Michigan is planning to have it up and running again by the end of next year, and the energy company NextEra is mulling whether to restart a nuclear plant in Iowa. Meanwhile, owners of functioning nuclear plants are scrapping plans to retire them, instead drafting regulatory applications to keep them operating in some cases as long as 80 years.

This shift is being driving in part by clean energy subsidies championed by the Biden administration. But states are also jumping on the nuclear bandwagon: Across the nation, scores of bills are advancing to provide incentives to the industry. Illinois, West Virginia and Connecticut were among a half-dozen states to lift moratoriums on new nuclear plants.

“We are in a totally different environment than we were just a few years ago,” said Doug True, chief nuclear officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group.

Nuclear is still a gamble. Safety concerns, supply chain issues and engineering challenges have thrown projects off schedule and over budget. At the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, the first new reactors in the United States since 2016, recently came online seven years late and nearly $20 billion over budget. An effort to build a similar reactor in South Carolina collapsed.

But energy companies now see increasingly favorable economics at nuclear plants. The data centers that fuel artificial-intelligence innovation and other tech are forecast to eat up as much as 9 percent of the U.S. power supply by 2030, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, a tripling of their share of electricity demand today. A boom in manufacturing and interest in electric vehicles are driving additional demand. It has touched off a frenzied search for zero emissions power by tech companies.

NextEra CEO John Ketchum said conversations with tech companies have prompted him to weigh a restart of the Duane Arnold Energy Center, Iowa’s only nuclear plant until it shut down under financial strain in 2020. “I would consider it, if it could be done safely and on budget,” Ketchum told Bloomberg last month. He said tech companies approaching him are seeking to build data center campuses needing as much power as the city of Miami.

NextEra said in a statement that the company “is always looking at the needs of its customers and the best use of our assets, including the Duane Arnold Energy Center.”

A dozen nuclear plants have shut down in the United States over the last decade, and most of them are probably beyond the point of being revived, according to Patrick White, research director at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, a think tank. Their reactors have been dismantled, their other infrastructure hauled away or left to decay.

But in other places, White said, the equipment could still be functional, if regulators approve powering it up. That is the gamble in Michigan, where the previous owners of the Palisades plant near Grand Rapids shut it down in 2022, saying the electricity it produced cost too much. It was sold to Holtec, a decommissioning firm that bought the plant with plans to manage its retirement after 50 years in operation. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) asked the new owner if the plant could be revived.

“We said, ‘We’ll keep the plant in a condition where anything we do can be reversed,’” said Patrick O’Brien, director of government affairs and communications at Holtec. Now, Holtec hopes to have the plant producing power again by the end of next year.

Not everyone is rooting for Holtec. The Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club calls the plan to subsidize the reopening of Palisades with $1.5 billion in federal and state funds “foolhardy and costly,” arguing the price of energy from the plant dwarfs that from wind turbines or solar panels. There is still no plan for disposing radioactive waste from any nuclear site, many environmentalists argue, meaning even more of it will end up stored at the plants if regulators sign off on extending their life span.

There are also worries that in the rush to revive and extend the life of nuclear plants, regulators are being pressured to overlook potential safety hazards of resuscitating equipment that in some cases predates the Carter administration. The plants had previously been expected to have life spans of about 60 years. But Dominguez said that most components at the plants, other than the reactor vessels and cement, have been replaced and updated.

Nuclear safety advocates fought a bill recently passed by Congress that expands the mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees safety, to include protecting the financial health of the industry, amid intense lobbying from nuclear-energy interests seeking speedier license approvals.

The United States is “taking our aging reactors into uncharted territory,” said Edwin Lyman, director of nuclear power safety at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Cutting corners on nuclear safety and increasing the risk of a Fukushima disaster in the U.S. is not likely to be a winning strategy for enhancing public confidence in the technology.” The release of radiation at the Japanese plant following a 2011 earthquake and tsunami prompted a reckoning for nuclear power on the scale of that which followed the Three Mile Island accident.

But the industry finds itself at odds with fewer environmental groups than in the past, as large wind and solar projects face their own cost overruns and delays, triggering worry the alternative to more nuclear power is heavily polluting gas and coal plants.

“This is not something we expected to do,” O’Brien said during a panel at a recent industry conference in Las Vegas, where he said Holtec is also getting asked about a plant that closed in New York in 2021 and one in Massachusetts that closed in 2019. “It is not just Palisades. Now at other plants we are decommissioning we are getting asked, ‘Can you restart Indian Point? Can you restart Pilgrim?’ Maybe. Probably not. We’ve cut up the reactors. But does that preclude us from putting in new reactors? I don’t think so.”

Holtec is one of many companies racing to develop smaller, more nimble reactors that the industry has been trying to bring to market for years, amid fierce regulatory and engineering headwinds. If they do ultimately succeed, the site of an operating or retired legacy plant, O’Brien said, is an obvious place to build them.

Some New York experts regret the closure of Indian Point near New York City in 2021 after years of pressure from environmentalists. The state was unable to secure enough clean energy to replace the power it produced, forcing New York to fall back on gas generation. Emissions surged, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.

“It is extremely harrowing to watch this ‘always on’ zero emissions electricity just disappear off your gird,” said Ben Furnas, who was climate director for former New York mayor Bill de Blasio and is now executive director of the 2030 Project at Cornell University, which seeks solutions to warming. “This can be a lesson for other places.”

Constellation Energy CEO Dominguez stressed the company has made no decisions on a restart of Three Mile Island, but he called its closing a major misstep that undermined the nation’s climate goals and energy security.

“We are extraordinarily confident in the reactor,” Dominguez said, adding other components are in “excellent shape.” He said he believes the company could complete all the construction and licensing needed to churn out electricity again within about three years of committing to a restart. Initial testing has focused on the steam generator connected to Unit 1.

But Three Mile Island’s history is impossible to ignore, say critics. Equipment malfunctions and operator errors put 2 million people in danger of radiation exposure when a coolant loss caused the partial meltdown in the plant’s Unit 2. Since then, fuel from that reactor and debris from its damaged core has been moved to the Idaho National Laboratory.

Despite assurances by the Energy Department that “no injuries, deaths or direct health effects were caused by the accident,” the finding is contested by many in the area who believe they were exposed to more radiation than the government acknowledges.

“It was like a war zone,” recalled Jim Fry, mayor of the borough of Royalton, who was working as a police officer at the time of the 1979 incident. “They didn’t tell people what was going on. It was a scary time”

His anxiety about the plant, however, like that of many others in the community, faded as the plant’s Unit 1 continued to operate safely. By the time it was turned off in 2019, it had operated for 45 years. Now, Fry says he would welcome a restart, which he said most people in town think is a “done deal.”

The national conversation about new nuclear technologies involving smaller, modular reactors is not relevant to Three Mile Island and other legacy plants. At Three Mile Island, operators are stuck with the 1970s-era reactor and containment system, the same design concept as the unit that partially melted down in 1979. While sensors, pumps and training have been improved, the nightmare scenario of a loss-of-coolant accident at a large, older reactor would not be completely eliminated in a revived Three Mile Island.

Not everyone in the shadow of the plant is willing to give it another chance. If Constellation moves forward, it will find itself in battle with nuclear safety activists like Eric Epstein, founder of the group Three Mile Island Alert, who are adamant a restart would be a dangerous boondoggle.

“How many times is the industry going to reinvent a broken nuclear wheel, and ask for another taxpayer bailout?” he said.

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