A view of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant from a boat in the Susquehanna River. (FILE – YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS)

Since when is nuclear an “alternative energy source”?Nuclear power has been around for decades. It’s second only to coal for electricity production in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

And yet in its recent public survey, Three Mile Island repeatedly refers to nuclear power as an “alternative energy source.”

Sure, it’s an alternative to coal, which is by far the largest source of energy — and, unfortunately, the dirtiest.

But nukes are not what most people think of when they hear “alternative energy.” They think solar, wind, maybe hydrogen fuel cells, maybe even hydro.

Maybe repeatedly tagging nukes with the buzz-word “alternative” is designed to help change that public perception.

And maybe it’s working. The survey of 800 residents near the site of the nation’s worst nuclear accident found that a strong majority favors keeping TMI running after its license expires in 2014. TMI is seeking a 20-year extension of its 40-year license. In a public relations effort, TMI hired a Harrisburg firm to survey nearby residents on their feelings about the plant.

Considering that the plant was the site of a partial nuclear reactor core meltdown in 1979 that resulted in dread and evacuations, local folks seem pretty sanguine about TMI — and nuclear power in general:

— 87 percent said they favor keeping the plant running for another two decades.

— 90 percent said nuclear should play a role in providing power now and in the future.

And those people are probably right.

This is a growing nation with growing energy needs. Oil and gas prices are rising, causing many to look toward electricity to power transportation. Greenhouse gases are almost certainly contributing to global warming, a looming catastrophe — and nuclear power produces no such emissions.

In that context, keeping TMI on line makes a lot of sense.

But only if it’s safe to do so. And, thank goodness, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t take public relations surveys into account in making such decisions. “The poll means nothing,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said. “We don’t base our decisions on polls that are put out by companies that operate plants.” He said the NRC bases its decisions on scientific reviews of infrastructure and environmental impact.

Good. Let’s hope that is truly the case.

While it would be helpful if TMI can keep producing, that should be the case only if it’s judged sound. The survey suggests many local folks have forgotten the fear that gripped the region in 1979 — but it could be tragic if there were a similar accident in a plant with aging infrastructure.

Meanwhile, TMI owners AmerGen Energy should work diligently on true “alternative” energy — the kind that doesn’t leave us with radioactive waste that’s problematic to dispose of.

ON THE WEB

· Three Mile Island in Dauphin County commissioned Susquehanna Polling and Research to conduct a poll to look at, among other topics, how residents felt about the plant’s bid to operate for 20 more years. To view the survey, go to http://www.threemileislandinfo.com.

· Talk about whether TMI should have its contract to operate extended 20 more years on our online forum, The Exchange, at exchange. ydr.com. Click on “Countywide and statewide discussion” and then click on “TMI survey.”

http://ydr.inyork.com/ci_10482127