March 27, 2009 — -- Thirty years after the worst nuclear-power crisis in U.S. history, the cooling towers at Three Mile Island look as sleek as ever.
And, 30 years later, the ruined reactor inside is still too hot to handle. It is still radioactive, physically and politically.
In all that time, not a single new nuclear plant has been started in the United States, not since the partial meltdown on March 28, 1979, near Harrisburg, Pa. The Soviet nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 slowed the industry even more.
But advocates are now talking of a "nuclear renaissance." In the past two years, there have been 26 applications to the government to start work on new nuclear reactors, after a 28-year lull.
What has changed? Nothing -- and everything.
"Nuclear will become one of the most important base-load sources of electricity in the world," said Patrick Moore, co-chairman of the CASEnergy Coalition, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., that touts nuclear technology as a solution to global climate change. "The change in the last three years has been phenomenal."
There are still 104 reactors in this country, producing 20 percent of our electricity. Of all the major sources of energy in America, it produces no greenhouse gases, which is a subject that has often brought up by President Obama.
"I will invest $15 billion a year in renewable sources of energy, in wind and solar power and the next generation of biofuels," he promised in November. "We'll invest in clean coal technology and find ways to safely harness nuclear power."
Obama says he is "not a nuclear energy proponent," but he does not take it off the table.
Moore, an early leader of Greenpeace, has teamed up with Christine Todd Whitman, the Republican former governor of New Jersey who headed the Environmental Protection Agency for several years under President George W. Bush. They argue that nuclear power is clean, affordable and, Three Mile Island notwithstanding, safe.
They and many U.S. power companies are buoyed by a new Gallup poll, which shows 62 percent of Americans in favor of new nuclear plants. Moore said the closer people are to an existing plant, the more comfortable they are with the idea.
But other people say they are as uncomfortable with the idea as ever.
'Renaissance' for Nuclear Power? 30 Years since Three Mile Island
"The industry is engaged in an all-out public relations campaign," said Dr. Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, Mass. "They're painting nuclear energy as clean-air energy by talking about the fact that it doesn't release pollutants into the atmosphere.
"But the issue really is the potential for a catastrophic accident or a terrorist attack," he said. "And this is what the industry does not want to address head on."
Mark Brownstein, a former electric utility lawyer who now works for the Environmental Defense Fund, says a lot has changed in 30 years.
"In terms of the operation of existing units, the track record's pretty good," he told ABC News. "The units run pretty reliably.
"Whether that is enough to change public perception about nuclear safety," he said, "that's an open question." But, he said, there is a reasonable chance that we will see new reactors built, probably starting in southeastern states where there are already many.
"And there's a generational issue here," Brownstein added. "I was just talking to a young woman in our office about Three Mile Island and she said, 'What's Three Mile Island?' The up-and-coming generation is too young to remember the accident."
That's precisely what worries many opponents.
"My concern is that as Three Mile Island retreats into the distance, people forget and complacency sets in," Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists said. "That is the biggest danger and the biggest threat to nuclear safety."