Three Mile Island
Ten Thousand Days Later
When we moved into our development in 1968 I could see the towers from my kitchen, never thinking a thing of it.- Paula Kinney
Assessing a Still Unfolding Nuclear Calamity at TMI & Beyond
Visit the Community Capacity Internet Audio Archive to hear the voices of people speaking about the accident.
A PREFATORY NOTE
Inevitably, in dealing with issues of science and technology, any presentation will be stepping outside the comfort zone of many readers. Nonetheless, unless they intend to forgo America’s ‘democratic birthright,’ so to speak, folks must grapple with such matters. Often, in order to make a ‘best effort’ at a consideration of the inherent conflicts and uncertainties of such a complex technical field as, for example, energy policy, common people would like something akin to an overview that might help them to evaluate arguments and points of view.
Though materials that I have produced are both convoluted and only preliminary in their execution, they constitute a fairly comprehensive and therefore arguably useful set of deep background resources about matters like the philosophy and history of science. They and their many leads and citations are accessible to readers who want to put the subject matter of this essay into a broader framework:
Additionally, interested readers should examine at least one key component of the development of post WWII science policy, the report of Vannevar Bush’s Presidential Advisory Commission, inaugurated in the aftermath of the Manhattan Project and the dawn of humanity’s nuclear era. Science, The Endless Frontier: A Report to the President on a Program for Postwar Scientific Research, which the GPO published at the end of 1945, has acted as a set of guidelines for the ongoing development of science and technology in the USA.
In order to participate in the types of discussions that result from the topic of the present essay, erstwhile participants are going to need to ‘gird their loins’ and study some of this old stuff. The alternative, in the opinion of this humble correspondent, is a doom of plutocratic domination that can only lead to further repression, diminution of democracy, and reduced quality of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for the regular people who are America’s vast majority.
PART 1 – In which we chronologically describe the events of the accident
– differing opinions, different stakeholders, etc. and other aspects of the day itself are discussed
Thirty years ago on March 12, 1979, the nationwide release of the film, “The China Syndrome” took place, just over two weeks prior to a nuclear power plant accident that eerily resembled the events in the film. Had ‘Three Mile Island’ ended up just a bit worse, it might well have had a similar impact on North America as Chernobyl had on Central and Northern Europe. Instead, the partial meltdown of the 1,000 Megawatt Pressurized Water Reactor near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, entered America’s annals as a terrible disaster that nevertheless did not kill anyone immediately and which, some would say paradoxically, authoritative pronouncements have ever since offered as incontrovertible evidence that America’s nukes have adequately redundant safety features to guarantee amelioration of even a worst case scenario.
In the movie, a TV news cameraman notes that a full meltdown might make “an area the size of Pennsylvania” essentially uninhabitable for an unimaginably long period of time. This weird instance of ‘life imitating art’ caused David Letterman to joke with Michael Douglas, ‘you guys must have one hell of a publicity agent.’ In fact, this line emanated from a government document that, although it viewed the odds of such an event as minuscule, did accept that some small risk of just such a devastating loss did exist.
When, in the very real calamity on the Susquehannah River, a giant bubble of explosively volatile hydrogen gas may have collected at the top of the reactor vessel, for days, we may have teetered on the verge of a cataclysm of unfathomable magnitude. The drama induced almost surreal responses. Among these, perhaps none exceeded the decision by President Carter and his wife to visit the site, so as to assure us all that the situation was under control. Or perhaps the President and his minions did have everything under control. As resident after resident spoke out, in recalling this troubling time, “We’ll never know” the answer to so many questions. As Mary Olson, of the Nuclear Information and Research Service, noted in a recent interview,
“Sometimes it seems like everything about nuclear power is just simply strange–bizarre.”
Whatever the case may be, in the end, the worst case remained merely a hypothetical possibility.
Today, inasmuch as United States Senate 2005 hearings for the Energy Policy Act powerfully argued for a renewed commitment to nuclear energy, onlookers might anticipate a resurgence of fission energy projects. Certainly, the efforts of the Southern Company, in Georgia (readers might look here, or here, or here, or here), Florida, and Texas appear to have returned the United States to a trip down a nuclear highway. Many more ventures are now an expected part of U.S. energy plans for the coming decades, an aspect of meeting upcoming power needs that we can only accept or reject intelligently insofar as we comprehend them. Thus, perhaps the time is ripe to consider what TMI has to teach us, to ponder again the role of an informed citizenry, to delve in some fashion for the first time the appropriate way to consider our nation’s energy policy in a democratic manner.
Readers will encounter in this series five chapters that seek to further this capacity for democratizing information, understanding, and decision-making. To start, this initial section provides a chronological and empirical overview that includes consists of a technical introduction and an ordering of how the accident itself unfolded, starting March 28, 1979.
The other pieces will follow, one day at a time. Second is, relatively speaking, a brief examination of the multiple investigative, official, and business actions that followed the accident. Third is a combination of a very short precis of the public health and environmental consequences of, and follow-up to, the accident, a similarly scanty summary of the legal and policy consequences of the accident over the last thirty years, and an even briefer historical timeline. The fourth installment, and in some ways the heart of this report, presents testimony of different actors in the TMI story–residents of Pennsylvania, utility officials, politicians and administrative personnel, lawyers, scientists, technicians who participated in the successful attempts to control the meltdown, and more–a gathering of pertinent fragments of the voluminous testimony of those who were ‘present at the creation,’ as it were. In addition to this text, readers will, as is the case throughout the work that we do, find multiple links to archives, websites, and our own collection of voices, from those who responded to our broad invitation to comment on this day long past that, depending on one’s perspective, one might view as lucky or invidious, or, perhaps, a combination of both. Finally, a concluding portion then rapidly evaluates the viability of nuclear power in light of the experience in Pennsylvania three decades ago, culminating with notes advocating more democratic approaches to science and technology.
As Thomas Jefferson once wrote,
“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
In other words, despite the disrespect currently fashionable concerning the capacity and rationality of average citizens, this entire assessment concludes by calling for a blossoming and a fundamental upwelling of common peoples’ involvement with and sayso over even the most arcane and technical aspects of the nation’s policies.
CHRONOLOGICAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND
Three Mile Island Unit Two on and before early in the A.M.3/28/1979
Unit Two was born under a troubled star. At every phase prior to start-up early in 1978, during construction, low power testing, and in the early months of full operation–this last step of which took place in an opportunistic move a day before year’s end in 1978, in order to take advantage of a forty million dollar tax credit–TMI Unit Two had encountered bewitching difficulties. In thinking about the situation, Mary Olson, the Southeast Regional Director of the Nuclear Information and Research Service, opines, “One reason that engineers love nuclear power is they love to solve problems so much; with nukes, they’ve always got more than their share of problems to solve.”
Eric Epstein, executive director of TMI Alert, who displays a keen ability to converse intelligibly and intelligently about the diverse technical, economic, scientific, and social issues at stake in nuclear power discussions, notes that Three Mile Island Alert came into being because residents distrusted the safety and reliability of both the reactor and the institutional framework for its operation. Given the problems during its assembly, especially to control costs and speed things along, such skepticism is certainly understandable. Anyhow, nothing in the year leading up to the accident, after the plant had begun activating the fissionable center of the reactor in March, 1978, had reassured Epstein about its prospects.
Whether TMI Alert’s fears were prescient or merely right, the group’s organizational website provides a strong counterpoint to the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission positions about this event of over 10,000 days ago, all of which views are easily accessible to interested parties. Those who would like might turn to
NRC Accounting of Accident
TMIA Response to NRC Accounting
NRC Reflectins on Accident, among the many virtual locations that speak of the days immediately following the 3:56 A.M. inception of this disaster.
As well, basic issues of the complex science and technology of the atomic age are often simply unavailable to many folks. In order to comprehend this discussion more fully, readers might turn to a variety of information banks.
NRC Glossary of Nuclear Terminology
One of these merely outlines in some detail the nature of different sorts of reactors and their operating protocols. . For purposes of assessing TMI generally, we might suffice to say that a nuclear reactor uses fission heat from a uranium(or possibly a plutonium)core to boil water and create steam, which, superheated and pressurized, turns gigantic turbines that produce many megawatts of electricity. Another provides a glossary. A final link offers a very attenuated timeline of the nuclear age.
Of course, radiation accompanies any nuclear plant’s normal operation, and a small chance persists that catastrophe could ensue on any given day. Others of the materials cited above thus lead readers more fully to ponder such issues. Clearly, we are hopeful that the chain reaction at the center of a plant remains under control. The alternative is a Chernobyl, or a near-miss at contaminating Pennsylvania.
In addition to these overall technical caches of data, dozens of other collections permit any resilient searcher to consider the many perspectives regarding this now seemingly long ago ‘meltdown.’ This very word in fact only entered the American lexicon as a result of TMI and “The China Syndrome.” Even if we continue to be lucky and avoid any necessity of employing it to describe what is happening, a review of these materials provide a richly educational experience.
Nuclear Energy Institute
American Nuclear Society
World Nuclear Association
Union of Concerned Scientists
Physicians for Social Responsibility
International Institute of Concern for Public Health
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
Public Citizen on TMI
Moreover, this article will be drawing on interviews that I and my wife have conducted and personal recollections that are available either online or in print, materials that at the very least add to the official view of what transpired in Middle Pennsylvania over a period of five to ten days in March and April, 1979. Among vast troves of such material, readers might turn to the following virtual locales:
GMU’s Echo Project
Dickinson College Interview Resources
Three Mile Island-Udall/Meyers Correspondence & Memos
Penn State TMI Recovery and Decontamination Collection
Stony Brook University Special Collections
University of Pittsburgh Thornburgh Papers
Though schematic and intentionally only partial, for ease of presentation, this essay now merely adopts a day by day timeline in its assessment of the accident itself.
for the rest of PART 1, including a breakdown of the days, go here.