As we once wrote, you can make the argument that the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear-power plant — which came just 12 days after the release of the film The China Syndrome, a cautionary tale about a nuclear-plant meltdown — helped stop the U.S. nuclear-energy industry dead in its tracks. While other countries soldiered on — France, Japan, Switzerland and Sweden, to name just a few — the U.S. turned away from nuclear, in large part because of public and political fear generated by what turned out to be a relatively harmless accident. There were other barriers to nuclear, of course, including cost overruns and regulatory nightmares; but once the sentiment turned, those more substantial barriers became secondary.
Does anyone have the sense that the recent BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico may come to be seen as a Three Mile Island moment, at least for the prospects of U.S. offshore drilling? President Obama has called the spill a “potentially unprecedented environmental disaster” — just weeks after he endorsed an increase in offshore drilling, to the deep chagrin of a broad swath of his supporters and environmentalists.
To be sure, there are key differences between the BP spill and TMI, the chief one being that our economy today is (still) very much dependent on oil, whereas our economy in 1979 was not very much dependent on nuclear power. Nor is it today, even though the U.S. does make more electricity from nuclear power than another other country in the world — although, when ranked by share of overall electricity, the U.S., with 20 percent coming from nuclear, is roughly in the middle.
That said, could the Gulf disaster be just the kind of tragic, visible, easy-to-comprehend event that crystallizes the already-growing rush to de-petroleum our economy? As with TMI, it won’t do much to change the facts on the ground about how energy is made. But as we’ve seen before, public sentiment can generate an awful lot of energy on its own, for better or worse.