William Tucker
William Tucker, author of Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey
William Tucker is a veteran journalist who has written about energy and the environment for 25 years. His work has appeared in... For a detailed bio
Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey
Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America's Long Energy Odyssey


Three Mile Island – Thirty Years After
March 31st, 2009
This post is filed under the following categories:
Nuclear Power
You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

Thirty years ago this week, the Three Mile Island accident shook the nuclear industry to its core. A meltdown - the thing that all the experts insisted couldn’t happen - happened. Hollywood, which had just released “The China Syndrome” starring Jane Fonda, had done a better job of predicting the future than had the computer projections of fault-tree mathematicians. What can we say today about Three Mile Island and its aftermath? I would say three things:

  1. The accident, if nothing else, proved that the consequences of a nuclear accident were not as serious as imagined.
  2. The culture surrounding nuclear power, rather than the technology, lead to the events.
  3. The industry has learned its lesson and improved operating and safety procedures almost beyond recognition. Such an accident is not likely to happen again.

The consequences of an accident. To the general public, a nuclear reactor has always been a domesticated bomb that could explode in a mushroom cloud at any minute. Sophisticated critics knew a reactor couldn’t blow up but they imagined a similar situation where an overheated core melted through the reactor vessel, through the containment structure and “all the way to China.” Supposedly it would hit groundwater at warp speed and cause a steam explosion that would (as the movie said) “render an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable.” (Give them credit for choosing the right state.)

None of this happened. The overheated core didn’t even melt through the chromium lining at the bottom of the reactor. Three Mile Island was a serious industrial accident that caused a billion dollars worth of damage and almost bankrupted the utility. What was unusual about it is that no one was hurt.

Chernobyl, on the other hand, which followed seven years later, was a Soviet specialty. Using a graphite moderator, the Soviets effectively packed the fuel rods in charcoal. When the core overheated, it ignited the carbon, which burned for days, sending a plume of radioactive smoke all over the world. Oh yes, they also neglected to cover it with a containment structure. All Russians reactors now have containments (although a few still use graphite moderators). Such an accident will never occur again in a country not run by infallible Marxist ideologues.

The Culture, not the technology, was at fault. In a brilliant 1980 article in Reason (”Who Caused Three Mile Island?”), Adam Reed pointed out that thirty years of secrecy at the old Atomic Energy Commission had cut off nuclear power from all the advances in industrial psychology following World War II, particularly the realization that human factors were usually the main cause of accidents:

By 1970 no new design for a toaster or blender at General Electric could get off the drawing board without being examined by an expert in human factors. Yet the same company was designing, manufacturing, and delivering nuclear reactors that had never been seen, much less examined by an engineering psychologist. . . . It was only after the loss of the Three Mile Island plant in 1979 that engineering psychologists asked what the hell was going on in nuclear power plant control rooms. What they saw made them shiver.

While industrial psychology had emphasized “user friendly” aspects in equipment, nuclear control panels consisted of rows and rows of identical lights and switches with no differentiation as to what was important and what was not. As Samuel Walker later wrote in his history of Three Mile Island:

Within a few seconds after the accident began, the plant’s alarm systems, including a loud horn and more than a hundred flashing lights on the control panels, announced the loss of feed-water in the secondary loop, the turbine trip, the reactor trip, and other abnormal events. But they offered little guidance about the cause of those occurrences and did not differentiate between trivial and vital problems.

Each reactor was an island unto itself, with few common designs or procedures and little communication. The valve that failed at Three Mile Island had failed nine times previously, yet nobody had done a thing about it. The operators at TMI spent four hours a year discussing what was happening at other reactors.

The Kemeny Commission, which performed a brilliant investigation of the accident, concluded: “[G]iven all the above deficiencies, we are convinced that an accident like Three Mile Island was eventually inevitable.”

The industry has reformed itself. Working on the recommendations of the Kemeny Commission - and the draconian oversight of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - the industry has made spectacular improvements in both operations and safety. Whereas early reactors were often manned by high school graduates, licensed operators now go through a five-year regimen, undergoing more training than airline pilots.

Control panels have been completely redesigned, computerized (the switch from analog to digital made a big difference), and completely duplicated in pitch-perfect simulators, where they spend one week in six honing their skills. With oversight from the Institute for Nuclear Power Operations (INPO), the industry now communicates almost instantaneously on safety matters.

The result has been a spectacular improvement in both operations and safety. Whereas capacity factors hovered around 60 percent until 1990, the entire industry now operates above 90 percent. While there were 22 year-long shutdowns for safety problems from 1976 to 1986 and 23 from 1986 to 1996, there has been only one in the last decade.

The record for continuous operation—688 days, six weeks short of two years - is now held by Unit 1, Three Mile Island.

For a longer version of this post, go to: www.spectator.org/archives/2009/03/31/three-mile-island-thirty-year.

Tags: , ,


47 Responses to “Three Mile Island – Thirty Years After”

  1. John B. Ashmun Says:

    Good substantiation for more nuclear power! Heavily subsidized switch grass, noisy, ugly windmills and solar screens producing interruptible power never to exceed some 10-15% of the country’s needs should take a far back seat to high potential, clean nuclear, long established oil & gas and coal sources which are being aimed at with more taxes.

  2. Martha T Pelensky, PE Says:

    I am a chemical engineer by training and spent most of my professional life as a process design engineer, control engineer and project manager for a major oil company. I am also of Ukrainian origin and have relatives in Kyiv (formerly Kiev).
    On the 20th anniversary (1986) of the Chernobyl disaster in the then Ukrainian SSR I gave a technical presentation at a local Section of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) about the origins and reasons for that debacle.. All information used in that presentation was in the public domain.
    I would like to summarize the presentation:
    1. The design, in its concept, was flawed in the sense that each nuclear power plant in the former USSR was designed to produce weapons-grade plutonium as a by-product. This required a frequent changedout of the uranium tubes. Because of this there could not have been a concrete shield around the core. Hans Bethe, a world class physicist at Cornell, commented that it was “a lousy design”.
    2. The construction was of low quality.
    3. The reason for the explosion was a poorly thought out experiment run by unqualified people. They were mostly electrical types . Nuclear reactor persons were not consulted and included.
    4. All safety precautions were DELIBERATELY bypassed on order of party functionaries who wanted to prove to their superiors how well they managed the test. Despite protests of operating personnel the minimum amount of control rods were pulled out. The results were what they were.
    5. The affected Chornobyl Reactor #4 had an unblemished safety record until that time.
    6. There were at that time some 17 plants of the same design operating throughout the USSR and nothing like Chornobyl disaster happened before or since.
    7. The three most responsible persons for this disaster were put on show trial and sentenced to hard labor somewhere in central Asia. Their current fate is unknown.

    The point of this brief analysis is that if a nuclear plant is operated as it should be and ALL safety precautions are meticulously observed, they are as safe if not more so, than a refinery or a chemical plant.

    Another comment:
    According to the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed. The heat generated by condensing the low pressure steam and absorbed by the cooling water is usually dissipated by the nearby body of water. It has been observed that its temperature rises which causes growth of algae and/or other water borne weeds which in turn affects the aquatic life. Yes, it is clean but not free. Also there is the pesky problem of the disposal of the wastes which are not clean.

    Very truly yours, Martha Pelensky

  3. Jared Says:

    There is definately a lot to learn about this topic. I love all the points you made.

  4. Leoma Says:

    Hi, i think that i saw you visited my web site
    thus i came to “return the favor”.I am trying to find things to improve my site!
    I suppose its ok to use a few of your ideas!!

  5. Fay Says:

    Inspiring quest there. What happened after?
    Good luck!

  6. clientmajor.com Says:

    Every weekend i used to visit this website, because i
    wish for enjoyment, as this this site conations in fact fastidious funny material too.

  7. เครื่องปั่นไฟ Says:

    I pay a visit each day some web pages and information sites to read articles or reviews, except this web site presents feature based writing.

  8. car rental paphos airport cyprus Says:

    Can’t ask for a representative to help you find the best paphos car hire in Cadiz is a
    great city in Europe. Try to take the total number of agencies for carhire in Dubai.
    The business makes a profit of about 3, 500 years
    ago. It is blazingly fast from what we asked of it. If that wasn’t enough, you’re
    dropped straight through a hole at the end of your rental. Roberson and Hendley survived a playoff with Sumin Yu, assistant professional at Firewheel Golf Park.

  9. iherb referral code Says:

    I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everyone else encountering issues with your
    website. It seems like some of the text within your content are running off the screen.
    Can someone else please provide feedback and let me know if this is
    happening to them as well? This could be a issue with my browser because I’ve had this
    happen before. Thanks

  10. Wednesday Says:

    Dude, right on there brtreho.

  11. how to grow taller Says:

    Spot on with this write-up, I truly feel this web site needs much more
    attention. I’ll probably be returning to see more, thanks for the advice!

  12. free minecraft Says:

    Hello, I log on to your new stuff regularly. Your writing
    style is witty, keep it up!

  13. minecraft Says:

    Your style is really unique compared to other people I have read stuff from.

    Thank you for posting when you have the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this page.

  14. grow taller exercises Says:

    This piece of writing presents clear idea in favor of the new visitors of blogging,
    that really how to do blogging.

  15. car rental Alice Springs Says:

    Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all folks you actually understand what you are talking about!
    Bookmarked. Kindly additionally talk over with my site =).
    We may have a link trade arrangement between us

  16. budget car rental Alice Springs Says:

    Saved as a favorite, I like your web site!

  17. car rental Says:

    Having read this I thought it was very informative.
    I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this
    short article together. I once again find myself spending a significant amount of time both reading and
    commenting. But so what, it was still worth it!

  18. beras merah Says:

    Thanks for your marvelous posting! I certainly enjoyed reading
    it, you might be a great author.I will ensure that I bookmark your blog and will often come
    back in the future. I want to encourage you to continue your great job, have a nice afternoon!

  19. cisco stackwise stacking cable Says:

    This is very interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger.
    I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more
    of your fantastic post. Also, I’ve shared your web site in my social networks!

  20. match.com Says:

    Hey there would you mind stating which blog platform you’re using?
    I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m having a hard time deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.

    The reason I ask is because your design seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for
    something unique. P.S Apologies for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

  21. mobile vivacity premium Says:

    Hi, i feel that i noticed you visited my
    website so i came to go back the prefer?.I’m trying to find
    issues to enhance my web site!I assume its ok to use a few of your

  22. Bobbie Says:

    I’m not sure why but this weblog is loading extremely slow for me.
    Is anyone else having this issue or is it a issue on my end?
    I’ll check back later on and see if the problem still exists.

  23. Dorian Says:

    You’re so awesome! I do not suppose I’ve truly read through anything like that before.
    So wonderful to discover someone with some unique thoughts on this subject.
    Seriously.. many thanks for starting this up. This web site is something that is required on the web, someone with a bit of originality!

  24. Cuc Says:

    Great weblog here! Also your web site quite a bit up very fast!
    What host are you the use of? Can I get your associate link in your host?
    I want my web site loaded up as fast as yours lol

  25. Coralee Says:

    Keep on writing, great job!

  26. Maryjane Says:

    Hello, every time i used to check blog posts
    here in the early hours in the morning, because i love to find out more
    and more.

  27. JohnathonNGanaway Says:

    I have read so many articles about the blogger lovers except this paragraph is in fact a pleasant article,
    keep it up.

  28. LuannSOreily Says:

    What’s up everybody, here every person is sharing these experience, therefore it’s good
    to read this weblog, and I used to pay a visit this website daily.

  29. CyrstalKLandis Says:

    Wow! Finally I got a webpage from where I be able to genuinely take helpful
    information regarding my study and knowledge.

  30. ShantaySCalbert Says:

    Good day! Would you mind if I share your blog with my myspace group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really enjoy your content.
    Please let me know. Thanks

  31. BryonBGiacolone Says:

    Hello friends, its wonderful post on the topic
    of teachingand completely defined, keep it up all the time.

  32. CharmainQGanigan Says:

    Hi this is kinda of off topic but I was wanting to know if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you
    have to manually code with HTML. I’m starting
    a blog soon but have no coding know-how so I wanted to
    get advice from someone with experience. Any help would be
    enormously appreciated!

  33. ArmandoXSpiter Says:

    Hi there very cool web site!! Man .. Beautiful
    .. Wonderful .. I will bookmark your site and take the feeds additionally?
    I am satisfied to find numerous useful info here within the submit,
    we’d like work out extra strategies on this regard,
    thank you for sharing. . . . . .

  34. HiediUGraceffo Says:

    Hey there would you mind stating which blog platform you’re using?
    I’m planning to start my own blog in the near future but I’m having a hard time deciding between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
    The reason I ask is because your design and style seems different then most
    blogs and I’m looking for something completely unique.
    P.S Apologies for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

  35. LaurindaMUzzle Says:

    I got this site from my buddy who informed
    me on the topic of this web page and at the moment this time I am browsing this web site
    and reading very informative content at this place.

  36. BreeASiguenza Says:

    Hi colleagues, its impressive piece of writing concerning teachingand entirely explained, keep it up all the time.

  37. quest bars Says:

    Having read this I believed it was rather informative. I appreciate
    you finding the time and energy to put this short article together.

    I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and posting comments.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

  38. minecraft games Says:

    I read this article fully concerning the comparison of latest and preceding technologies, it’s awesome article.

  39. Lara Says:

    First, ridofbrain you’re an idiot.There is a fault line that runs arocss the bottom of lake Huron & Superior. The type of reactors we have are different. Unlike Japan, we don’t use depleted uranium in our reactors. Saying that, we are sitting on shiploads of waste with no feasible was to dispose of it besides giving ridofbrain a tritium milkshake.Nuclear power doesn’t scare me as much as the waste that lasts hundreds of thousands of years. That alone puts me against it as a prime power source.As for Chalk River that’s a medical reactor. Much smaller than the Bruce, Darlington or Pickering. Only a moron would think a snide comment about something that creates a product to treat cancer is clever.But then again, it is ridofbrain, English comprehension is the best we can expect of him.

  40. Kylia Says:

    ala.. tak rasa tertipu pun cos the size of the patty itself is still the same.. tak berubah pun.. bun tu kecut pun becos of the steam in the box yang membuatkan bun tu penyek. not big deal la.. still a big fan of mcD’s food.. heeh3eeh&#82h0;

  41. Ellie Says:

    Right here is the perfect blog for anyone who really wants to find
    out about this topic. You realize a whole lot its almost hard to argue with you (not that I really will
    need to…HaHa). You definitely put a fresh spin on a subject that has been written about for many years.
    Great stuff, just wonderful!

  42. FirstJanell Says:

    I have noticed you don’t monetize your website, don’t
    waste your traffic, you can earn additional
    bucks every month because you’ve got high quality content.
    If you want to know how to make extra money, search for: Mrdalekjd methods for $$$

  43. minecraft Says:

    I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the
    page layout of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.
    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two
    images. Maybe you could space it out better?

  44. minecraft Says:

    Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though
    you relied on the video to make your point.

    You obviously know what youre talking about, why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos to your weblog when you could
    be giving us something informative to read?

  45. minecraft Says:

    Hi there everyone, it’s my first pay a visit at this web
    site, and post is really fruitful in favor of me, keep up posting these articles.

  46. minecraft Says:

    Great info. Lucky me I found your site by chance (stumbleupon).
    I’ve book-marked it for later!

  47. minecraft Says:

    Outstanding quest there. What occurred after? Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Security Code: