WHO WOULD HAVE thought that the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant outside Harrisburg, site of the nation's most serious nuclear accident, would so soon become a valuable commodity? And not as a tourist attraction but as a reborn producer of electricity?
AmerGen Energy Corp. is buying the plant for $100 million, intending to operate the undamaged Unit 1 reactor for power production. (Unit 2 is unusable after the 1979 partial reactor meltdown.)
AmerGen and competing Entergy Corp. are the leaders in buying up existing nuclear power plants -- at distress sale prices -- and looking for economies of scale as power companies search for new roles under deregulation.
Does it signal a resurgence of nuclear power, which now provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity? Or is it a sign of reorganization of an industry in serious decline?
Six nuclear power units have closed since 1996 because they were uneconomical to operate. No new nuclear plant has been ordered in this country since the scare at TMI-2. Even with new plant designs, nuclear construction costs would be many times that of a fossil-fueled generator.
The advantage of a well-run nuclear facility is that it uses cheaper fuel to generate large amounts of power. Buying a multi-billion-dollar nuclear plant for a pittance can be profitable for large consolidators seeing an expanding market for energy. But high maintenance costs, deregulated competition and stricter regulatory requirements can upset these financial calculations.
Of particular concern is that the nuclear plants being sold have a relatively high number of federal safety violations in recent years.
Meantime, companies with viable nuclear plants are lining up for federal relicensing of reactors as their original 40-year licenses expire. Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. was the first to apply to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, seeking a 20-year extension for its twin 850-megawatt reactors at Calvert Cliffs.
Global warming has renewed interest in nuclear power, which does not produce the greenhouse gases that are released by carbon-fuel generators. Still, safety worries and the mounting problem of where to store used radioactive fuel, as well as economics, ensure that a new nuclear plant will not be built in this country.
Even as Japan and France produce much of their electricity from nuclear power, the U.S. industry will continue to shrink and consolidate in the foreseeable future. Ironically, many commercial reactors are producing power more efficiently than ever: the world leader for consecutive operating days is Three Mile Island Unit 1.