TMI, 40 Years Later

Forty years ago today, the “incident” at Three Mile Island Generating Station in eastern Pennsylvania occurred.  Due to a series of small-scale mishaps with cooling systems, the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor heated up to alarming temperatures and suffered a partial core meltdown. Fortunately, the overheated radioactive material itself was contained in the core and did not escape to the environment.

towers-1979The concern then turned to what to do radioactive gases that had been generated.  For days, “Three Mile Island’ dominated the news, with news reports always featuring the forbidding cooling towers venting steam in the background.  Ultimately, some of the gases were trapped in tanks, but other gases were vented to the atmosphere after migrating through a series of filters that were supposed to trap the most dangerous radioactive elements.  Residents were instructed to stay indoors, with the windows in their homes closed, but there was great concern that exposure to the gases could cause all kind of health issues.  People panicked, and thousands of frightened people fled the area.  It was one of the first instances of major federal government communications failure in the modern era.  Eventually, President Carter visited the site to let the general public know that the situation was under control — but by then the perceptual damage had been done.

It took about a month until the engineers at the site had the coolant systems under control, but the aftermath of TMI lasted for years.  There was significant litigation about the possible health effects of the incident, although authorities eventually concluded that the only significant exposure was experienced by four employees at the TMI plant.  Concerns about widespread birth defects and the development of radiation-related illnesses turned out to be unfounded.  In the meantime, clean-up operations lasted for almost 15 years and cost nearly a billion dollars.

TMI was the worst nuclear incident on U.S. soil.  In terms of its health effects, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Chernobyl incident, and many people now living in America either weren’t around when it happened or have forgotten about it.  But TMI has had one lasting impact that is undeniable — since it occurred, no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States, and every time one is considered, the grainy black and white photos of the TMI cooling towers with steam rising from them get displayed.

But as America increasingly focuses on lessening its carbon footprint and relying on renewable energy sources, nuclear power is cited more and more frequently as something that has to be considered as part of the solution.  Technology has changed a lot, and for the better, since 1979, and people also have come to realize that nuclear power offers some significant environmental advantages over other forms of power generation that are dependent upon fossil fuels.

Maybe now it is time to let TMI and those scary photos of cooling towers fade into the past, and take a fresh look at nuclear power without being hamstrung by 40-year-old fears.

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Horror In Honshu

The appalling devastation from the earthquake off the Japanese coast, and the resulting tsunami, is difficult to comprehend.  You look at before and after pictures, you see photographs of rescure workers crawling through enormous masses of wreckage, you read about the horror of hundreds of bodies washing ashore, and the mind just does not compute the scale of the disaster.  Boats tossed atop houses; cars massed together like toys kicked by an angry child, and entire areas wiped clean of buildings and people.  The effect is staggering.

It is interesting to me that, in the west, the focus seems to be more on the nuclear power plants rather than on the devastation to the people and the countryside.  I suppose that is because there is a certain fascination about nuclear power and its potential destructive force.  Yet the destructive force of the earthquake and tsunami has already been delivered, and it has killed thousands and ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands.  In view of that actual disaster, why should there be such interest in the potential disaster of a nuclear meltdown?

The nuclear power industry in America must be suicidal.  We had just about gotten to the point where people were ready to talk seriously about building nuclear power plants again — indeed, where nuclear power was even considered a form of “green energy.”  That time has now passed.  Now, no one is going to want to have a nuclear power plant in their backyard — even if it takes an earthquake and a tsumani to trigger a possible core meltdown scenario.  The news from Japan is just too raw, and too horrifying.

TMI, 30 Years Later

Thirty years ago the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, hit the news. I was a college student at the time, and I recall that the stories about the incident had a very panicked, sci-fi quality to them. The nuclear core could reach extraordinarily high temperatures and melt down, burning through the concrete bed and tunneling into the bowels of the Earth, to spread radiation everywhere! Or, radioactive steam could spew from the cooling towers and be carried on the winds, to spread radiation everywhere! Or maybe both of those things could occur and other bad things, too! The TV reports always seemed to show the worried reporter a great distance from the Three Mile Island facilities, with the massive cooling towers looming ominously in the background. Given the alarmist nature of the reports, you almost expected the reporter to suddenly grow a third arm or develop superpowers. Of course, none of that happened — and it is not even clear if what did happen had any discernible health-related effects on anyone exposed to any emissions from the Three Mile Island facility.

Viewed from the perspective allowed by the passage of three decades, it seems clear that the Three Mile Island incident had good and bad effects. No doubt it caused government regulators and industry groups to examine nuclear facility procedures and processes and to introduce additional safety steps, devices, and checks. In the 30 years since Three Mile Island hit the news, there has not been any significant nuclear power mishap in the United States (Chernobyl is another story, of course). At the same time, the quasi-hysterical reaction to the incident made such an impact on those who lived through it that many people have an almost instinctive belief that nuclear power is extraordinarily dangerous — notwithstanding the safety experience of European countries, which rely much more heavily on nuclear power than we do, or that of the U.S. Navy, which relies on nuclear generators to power many of its warships and submarines. As a result, in the United States we have built very few nuclear power facilities in the years since Three Mile Island.

If our country hopes to move away from dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels for its energy, nuclear power clearly must play an increasing role. Perhaps this 30th anniversary will cause people to take a new and dispassionate look at the Three Mile Island incident and nuclear power power generally, and we can move forward with a more mature approach to our power generation needs that welcomes nuclear power as part of the solution.