Will the Gulf Oil Spill Be This Generation’s Three Mile Island?

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.

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  1. Nosybear says:

    Interesting question. I think it will become a Three-Mile Island incident for deregulation of corporations. Look at the news the past few months, Wall Street meltdowns, mine disasters, oil spills, the common thread either the industries were deregulated or they were able to thumb their noses at regulators. Government may become the answer again as the source of the problems in nearly every case is unregulated drive for maximum profit.

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  2. John S. says:

    Let the man who said “Oil rigs today don’t generally cause spills” go down there and clean it up.

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  3. joshua says:

    One way or another, a TON of green energy upstarts just won second/third round funding from their venture capitalists.

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  4. Matt says:

    Given that the extent of this disaster could range in scope from a merely awful environmental catastrophe to an event that has unprecedented and unimaginable economic and environmental consequences, I think it’s way too early to start wondering how the public is going to interpret it. We still don’t know how much oil is leaking, but so far every piece of new information has led officials to revise that estimate skyward. I don’t think most people have wrapped their heads around just how bad this could be.

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  5. Erik Brynjolfsson says:

    You write that “economy today is (still) very much dependent on oil”. That may be true, but it does not follow that it is dependent on more offshore drilling.

    I ran the numbers and even a huge (50%) increase in oil production from the Gulf of Mexico would lead to a tiny (1% or less) change in gasoline prices. The reason is that oil is traded on a world market, so more drilling would make a negligible dent in global supplies, especially when you consider that it would in part merely substitute for other supplies and much of the net increase would be consumed in other nations.

    See http://www.economicsofinformation.com for details.

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  6. Mack says:

    The big difference is that oil isn’t scary the way nukes are. Oil is something we’re intimately familiar with. Nukes represent an existential threat. Oil heats our homes and powers our cars. Radiation is the silent killer.

    Not an entirely rational thought process, but then, we don’t make most decisions rationally.

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  7. Rudiger in Jersey says:

    Never make important policy decisions based on fear.
    Ironically the most important person who most influenced the Nuclear Industry in America in the past 30 years is not a politician, technologist or engineer.

    It is JANE FONDA. She had a critical role in an Oscar Nominated film called ‘The China Syndrome.’ Millions of Americans saw it and it influenced their opinions to this day. Its effect was magnified by the concurrence of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl Disasters. Note: no Americans were killed at 3 Mile Island or any other nuclear disaster in the past thirty years. But there have been American workers killed in wind turbine fatalities.

    Does Jane Fonda know anything about nuclear energy? Probably no more than Leonardo DiCaprio or George Clooney. Yet she is our leader in Nuclear Policy despite having a patchy history of morality, intellect and patriotism.

    As a Democracy, we risk being guided through herd mentality by a single incident and NOT SOUND POLICY JUDGEMENTS.

    If she still looks good in a bikini, maybe Jane Fonda should be Secretary of Energy?

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  8. srfinger says:

    While this spill may not affect the true economics of oil production, it definitely cause us to update our prior.

    Calculations change when you realize potentially catastrophic events could happen with much greater probability than you previously believe.

    Deep water drilling is now not just limited by firms’ abilities to find oil miles below the surface, but also by their abilities to control extraction miles below the surface. The relative importance about this second skill is much higher after we have updated our prior.

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