Marble Hill: Erasing the wreckage of a nuclear planning mistake
With Japanese authorities still working to salvage the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, it is worth exploring the institutional fallout of the developed world's last significant brush with nuclear catastrophe. This is the first of a series of articles I will publish on this website as part of Temples of the Atom, a project documenting the wreckage of unfinished American nuclear power stations.
The remains of a crisis
After the meltdown of a reactor in 1979 at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania, a snowballing financial crisis befell the U.S. nuclear industry. Facing lower than expected demand for electricity, power utilities had already begun cancelling planned reactors in the mid-1970s. After Three Mile Island, that trickle became a full-fledged rout as skyrocketing regulatory costs, expensive construction mistakes and a shortage of financing killed dozens of projects. And now, for the first time, planned reactors were not the only casualties; sites around the U.S. that were well into active construction were cancelled outright or converted into conventional, coal- or gas-fired generating stations.
As one newspaper writer summarized in 1984, "in the Midwest alone, one billion-dollar plant has been abandoned more than halfway to completion, one will be converted to coal, and one faces a year or more of legal battles before it goes into operation---if it goes at all."1
The Tennessee Valley Authority alone abandoned or mothballed four partially completed nuclear stations in three different states. Across the U.S., unfinished facilities were abandoned in Washington State, in South Carolina, and in Indiana, the cancelled Midwest plant referred to above. Last summer, I visited that latter plant site, at Marble Hill, just outside of Madison, Indiana, while a Michigan-based company was in the midst of demolishing it.
The construction of Marble Hill was estimated to have been 59% complete when it was abandoned in 1984. $2.8 billion dollars had been spent on building and outfitting its two reactors and the other parts of the complex required to support them and to spin electricity from the heat they would have generated. This great failure bankrupted one of the two utilities that had partnered on the station's construction, and the site languished for more than two decades before someone stepped in to demolish it and salvage what they could from the wasted material.
Exploring the remains, and why it matters to have this view
By the time we visited, demolition was well underway. The powerhouses for the two units had been stripped down to the concrete footings used to support the turbines. The fuel handling building was gone. The steam generation building, where heat from the radioactive water circulated in the reactors would have been transferred to a separate loop of water/steam meant to drive the turbines, was in the midst of being torn open and stripped down. One of the two reactors had been completely scrapped and demolished; the second containment dome was still standing but the core and must of the surrounding infrastructure was gone. The only major infrastructure left untouched were the batteries of cooling towers, the heat sink, and the water intake.
Yet in this ongoing destruction, we had an incredible view of the bones of nuclear power as a physical installation. Nuclear power produces just 20% of U.S. electricity (14% in Canada), yet it occupies a much greater position in our imagination, thanks to a history of public concern and periodic crisis. Despite its presence in our lives and our fears, we are rarely afforded the sort of views inside nuclear power that might provide any kind of scale for experiencing it as a thing that we can parse and relate ourselves to. Operating plant buildings are thoroughly unremarkable, even intentionally banal when seen from the outside. Moving inside, the usual views of their interiors, as seen in photographs supplied by the utility companies, seem intended only to provide a weird kind of reassurance—emphasizing an antiseptic, technocratic safety nested in an incomprehensible physical complexity that carries the message this is not for you to understand.
Thanks to the demolition, what we saw at Marble Hill was very different from what we've ever seen in official visions of nuclear power. The scale of the buildings, when approached without the usual wide perimeters, layered security, closed environments and techno-bureaucratic ritual, was surprisingly small and fragile. The size of the buildings made it hard to fathom that billions of 1970s dollars had been spent in their construction, or that humanity's most energy-rich undertaking could have been conjured and harnessed here, had it not been for the deteriorating economics that doomed the Marble Hill project. Even accounting for the advanced state of demolition, the power-generating part of the complex could be circumnavigated on foot in just a few minutes.
Pigeons roosted near the ceiling of the remaining containment dome, an empty temple, its altar dismantled. Like something from one of the former Biosphere sites, the endless batteries of cooling towers were dingey, deteriorating, damaged by the elements, but gloriously accessible: in each cooling battery, a simple catwalk traversed an array of plastic vanes and half-assembled convection fans the length of four football fields. The turbine buildings, reduced to their concrete frames, were the most monumental elements of the entire complex, yet the vast Southern Indiana agricultural space that surrounded them subtly mocked and undermined any feelings of the sublime. Marble Hill was perhaps the first time I have truly been conscious of an industrial architecture being both unquestionably big and startlingly small at the same time.
My visit to Marble Hill was the beginning of an ongoing project. Over the next few months, I hope to visit other casualties of the 1980s nuclear retrenchment, the forgotten wrecks scattered, hidden in cornfields and coniferous forests across the United States. It's a view of nuclear power that I think we need, a view with no overt political bias but one that I hope can inform and deepen the way we imagine this power source, and weigh and debate its future in our energy economy.
I want to express my thanks to Craig Moyer for the scanned promotional materials from Marble Hill's construction period, and to fellow photographer Jeremy Blakeslee.
Also, if your name is Bryan, and you recently sent me a message about Marble Hill through the contact page, please e-mail me at michael [at] vanishingpoint [dot] ca. The e-mail address you provided must have a typo, it fails on reply!
- 1. Graeme Browning. "The Midwest's Nuclear Brownout: Plants abandoned, schedules years behind, cost skyrocketing." UPI. March 10, 1984.
Michael Cook is available to speak to your organization about infrastructure history, lost creeks, current conditions, and opportunities for change in our management of and communication about urban watersheds, and to work with teams proposing or implementing such change. Get in touch.