Less than an hour north of Louisville and a stone’s throw from the Ohio River sprawls the skeleton of a $2.8 billion nuclear dream.
Before continuing, please picture $2.8 billion. That’s 50,000 fully-loaded Cadillacs. Or seven million iPads. Or roughly 10% of Indiana’s entire yearly budget for 2018. $2.8 billion would pay the average electric and natural gas bill for one million Hoosiers…for an entire year.
Coupled with that startling statistic is the original purpose of the decayed structure in Jefferson County: it was supposed to be Indiana’s first nuclear power plant, the Marble Hill Nuclear Power Plant (blandly named after a nearby hill from which miners once gathered marble).
In 1973, engineers and architects worked with Indiana power concerns and earmarked a thousand acres along the Ohio River for a $700 million investment: two pressurized water reactors that would produce 2,360 megawatts of power for Indiana and Kentucky. In 1973, the public still considered nuclear power a relatively safe alternative to fossil fuels.
At that point in US history, the few nuclear accidents in the United States had been relatively small (the Sodium Reactor Experiment meltdown in 1959, the SL-1 reactor explosion in 1961 and 1966’s breeder reactor meltdown in Michigan). Fatalities had been minimal and the cost, marginal.
Delays postponed construction at Marble Hill until 1977, but when construction began, it flourished, providing viable work and wages for nearly 8,000 people. The immensity of the facility meant the two reactors wouldn’t be operational until 1986 and 1987, but that was nothing unusual. Nuclear power plants take time to build safely.
Then came Three Mile Island’s partial meltdown in 1979. In a single sentence: a reactor at the Pennsylvania nuclear facility overheated, melted but wasn’t immediately discovered. Radioactive gas leaked from relief valves and gave two million people a light dose of radiation, roughly half of what you’d get from an x-ray.
Three Mile Island is not as infamous for what happened, but for the nail-biting realization of what COULD have happened. Public favor plummeted and many United States citizens looked at nearby nuclear power plants with fear and mistrust.
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Construction did not halt at the Marble Hill plant, but it came under greater scrutiny. Employees came forward and testified that the plant’s contractor had forced them to hide mistakes in construction, most importantly cutting corners that led to weakened walls on the containment structures surrounding the yet-to-be-installed reactors.
Costs multiplied then skyrocketed from $700 million to $2.8 billion in 1984, when Governor Robert Orr recommended the plant’s construction be cancelled. A further $4 billion was needed to finish the plant’s construction, an amount the plant’s owners could not pay and Indiana would not subsidize. Thousands of workers were laid off, and when creditors came knocking, all the plants assets and scrap amounted to only $100-$200 million, far beneath the structure’s cost.
In 1987, the hollowed our plant supported only 50 workers, hired to keep the plant safe from trespassers. Since then, the Marble Hill Power Plant has been sold and sold again, with most of the structures torn down, leaving holes where buildings were uprooted like rotted teeth.
To this day, the thousand acres along the Ohio River that once promised to power Indiana homes is now an abandoned scrub plain of sand and concrete dust. No visitors are permitted, no explorations are allowed, and by this point, there’s very little to see. Just a $2.8 billion reminder of a time both perilous and promising in Indiana history.