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What is Three Mile Island and what really happened?

Today, we’re talking about Three Mile Island.

However, although we’re talking about it today, it’s not just about the island I’m referring to, but obviously, one of the most serious accidents in US commercial nuclear power plant operating history.

It’s a really fascinating history, and one that I thought many of you might like as much as I loved researching it as well, so let’s just jump right into it.

The US Nuclear Regulation Commission states that the accident began at about 4:00 am on Wednesday, March 28th, 1979, when the plant experienced a failure in the secondary non-nuclear section of the plant, one or two reactors on the site.

Either a mechanical or electrical failure prevented the main feedwater pumps, component in the animated diagram, from sending water to the steam generators that remove heat from the reactor core.

This caused the plant’s turbine generator, and then the reactor itself, to automatically shut down.

Immediately, the pressure in the primary system, the nuclear piping portion, began to increase.

In order to control that pressure, the pilot operated relief valve opened.

It was located at the top of the pressurizer.

The valve should have closed when the pressure fell to proper levels, but became stuck open.

Instruments in the control room, however, indicated to the plant staff that the valve was closed.

As a result, the plant staff was unaware that cooling water in the form of steam was pouring out of the stuck open valve.

As alarms rang and warning signs flashed, the operators did not realize the plant was experiencing a loss of coolant accident.

And I’m not exactly well-versed with nuclear power plants, obviously, so some of the language used I’m not super familiar with, but what has become clear over time is that not only was this a mechanical error, but a human error as well.

The perfect storm, you might say.

One book, “Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis In Historical Perspective,” by Samuel J.

Walker details the incident.

On page 74, he wrote that the operators saw no definite signs the plant was suffering a loss of coolant accident and was in danger of core unrecovery, in which the core is not fully covered with water.

Their training programs hadn’t prepared them for these conditions, apparently.

However, the two operators in the control room, Craig Faust and Edward Frederick, were veterans of the Navy’s nuclear submarine program, and had completed operator qualifying programs.

Faust and Frederick should’ve been prepared, right?

Metropolitan Edison, or Met-Ed, as it’s commonly referred to, certainly seemed to think so.

The point is, mechanical and human error both played an immeasurable role in this partial meltdown and radiation leak.

But what I find most fascinating about this particular moment in history is what followed.

How some articles say there were no lasting health effects, while others alleged the government covered it up, and a spike in deaths related to cancer.

So let’s get into some of immediate effects.

At first, people were told everything was under control.

I understand not wanting to cause a panic, but let’s be real here, it’s pretty obvious the opposite was true.

One source states, the crisis in confidence began almost as soon as the accident did.

On Wednesday, March 28, hours after the core had collapsed into rubble.

Lieutenant Governor William W.

Scranton appeared at a news briefing to say that Metropolitan Edison, the plant’s owner, had assured the state that everything is under control.

By afternoon, Scranton had altered his statement.

The situation, he said, was more complex than the company first led us to believe.

By Friday, the stage had been set for full-scale panic.

Officials were still issuing reassuring statements about the status of the reactor, but schools had been closed.

Residents were being urged to stay indoors, and farmers were being warned to keep their animals under cover and on stored feed.

Then two things happened.

First, on the advice of Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, Joseph Hendrie, Governor Dick Thornburgh recommended that pregnant women and small children leave the area.

Second, concern surfaced about a gaseous bubble in the reactor that appeared to pose a hazard of an explosion.

For many, it was too late to really do anything.

The damage was apparently already done.

One woman who ran a daycare center, Corradi, said that after fleeing to her mother’s home 40 miles away, her nine-year-old son vomited up vile green slime.

Others remember a metallic taste in their mouths immediately after the accident, while other residents in the area complained of rashes, nausea, and respiratory problems, yet medical experts seemingly dismissed the complaints as symptoms of stress.

Some residents surrounding TMI, Three Mile Island, now consider this an old wound that should be left alone, and I can understand that perspective.

Yet at the same time, Corradi brings up an important point when she says, “We had an accident, it was severe.

We were not told the truth, and you cannot sweep these things under the carpet.

” And I’m not going to get into all the things that the American people have been lied to in 2020, and in relation to all the COVID-19, or conflicting statements we’ve heard back and forth, because I feel like we get really political really fast here, and everyone wants to have their opinion about COVID-19, and it just turns into this massive, massive dumpster fire of just infighting, but being lied to about something related to health really is despicable.

Again, I completely understand not wanting to cause a panic, or tell people, oh my gosh, go to your doctor’s right now, you might grow an extra arm or something.

Yet despite residents being urged to stay indoors, and pregnant women and small children being advised to evacuate, the government later seemed to shrug this all off.

So how serious was this?

Well, history.

com states, after the Three Mile Island accident, public support for nuclear energy fell from an all-time high of 69% in 1977 to 46% in 1979.

An estimated 2 million people were exposed to small amounts of radiation as a result of the Three Mile Island accident.

There are no known health impacts.

Several government agencies and independent groups conducted studies, but no adverse effects could be found to correlate these exposures.

No adverse effects, you say?

A local study of 450 residents in the area found nine cancer deaths between 1980 and 1984, more than seven times the normal rate there.

One source claims that hundreds of lawsuits were settled out of court, and millions of dollars compensated parents of children born with defects in the area.

Even though no one died immediately as a result of the meltdown, one source states there was a sharp rise in hypothyroidism in newborn infants in the three counties downwind of the reactor, and that’s four times as many infants as normal born with the disease in late 1979.


David Goldenberg, a surgeon and thyroid researcher, even launched a student decades later in 2017 to see these lasting effects, and if this was really due to Three Mile Island, or coincidence.

“Although Pennsylvania has the nation’s highest rate of thyroid cancer, most of that cancer has nothing to do with Three Mile Island,” Goldenberg said.

“However, thyroid cancer caused by low-level radiation has a different mutational signal than most thyroid cancer,” Goldenberg said.

He and his colleagues used molecular research that had been pioneered after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster to find that genetic marker.

The scientists screened out many thyroid cancer patients, limiting their study to 44 people who were born in counties around Three Mile Island, who were present during the accident, and were treated at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

“We found a shift which absolutely can be attributed to exposure to radiation during the correct timeframe of the Three Mile Island accident,” he said, adding that this does not prove that Three Mile Island caused the cancer, it just shows a correlation.

Goldenberg is quick to point out the study’s limitations, emphasizing that he’s working on a larger followup study.

Still, it has put him in the middle of a 40-year-old debate.

Did the accident at Three Mile Island release more radiation than the government says?

Did it harm people?

First of all, all I can really appreciate that Goldenberg points out the limits of his own study, and concedes that Pennsylvania has high rates of thyroid cancer that are unrelated.

It doesn’t seem like we can definitively prove that the government lied about how much radiation was released, but it absolutely seems that way.

And given the story I covered on the Radium Girls a while back on the channel, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that something like this would be covered up, either.

Now, before you stick your tinfoil hat on and shout conspiracy theories, others say that in studies conducted by the NRC, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, now Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy, and the state of Pennsylvania, as well as several independent studies, the average dose of radiation was only one millirem.

To put that into perspective, exposure from a full set of chest x-rays is 6 millirem.

(chill music) It’s only the more recent studies and articles that seem to throw these numbers into question, particularly the one from Penn State.

I don’t just want to believe in one study from Goldenberg.

Trusting in one study is what anti-vaxxers have done with Andrew Wakefield’s infamous debunked study for years.

That would be irresponsible to insist on having multiple sources and evidence, and then take Goldenberg alone for his word, and ignore the NRC, Environmental Protection Agency, and all the other studies that found otherwise at the time.

I think more testing needs to be done now that we have different tech than we did in the ’70s and ’80s.

But this leaves me on the fence, not sure if testing has changed over the years, or simply the speculation.

I guess you can come to your own conclusion on this one, but I’m really hesitant to say this was swept under the rug, seeing those numbers from multiple studies.

Of course, dismissing the concerns of the citizens would be irresponsible too, but given the information available at the time, I’m not sure if there was any evidence available that these concerns were justified, or simply a tad overblown.

Both seem possible, and given previous far more deadly nuclear incidents, I can see why citizens would be fearful.

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Regardless of the health effects, another effect that sources agree on was how this fueled the anti-nuclear movement.

Three Mile Island has become a symbol for the movement, and it has, as one source puts it, solidified the nuclear power plant safety concerns of the general public, making it clear that new regulations were needed for the nuclear industry.

Analysis of the accident identified serious flaws in the system which led to crucial changes in how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates nuclear power plants.

Since the accident, they’ve upgraded and strengthened the plant design and equipment requirements.

Specifically, they’ve included fire protection, containment building isolation, and an automatic shutdown option in the new design.

The reliability of equipment, such as pressure relief valves and electrical circuit breakers, has been improved as well.

They have also enhanced the emergency protocol in case of an emergency.

So at least some good has come of this.

Three Mile Island has caused sweeping and permanent changes in its wake.

Today, there are far fewer and much less frequent and lower risk events that could lead to a reactor core damage.

The average number of times safety systems have been activated is 1/10 of what it was just over 20 years ago.

Radiation exposure levels to plant workers have steadily decreased, and are well below national limits.

In 2007, there were 52 unplanned reactor shutdowns, whereas in 1985 there were 530.

Mistrust rose, and so guidelines had to change.

However, as for the control room operators, Faust and Frederick, as well as the supervisor and shift foreman, some believe that they had nothing to do with this.

Because of the poor regulations at the time this happened, the true justice has not been served.

One letter written 35 years later in 2014 to the chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission reads, “I personally have done significant research on the accident, and can speak firsthand.

In my opinion, justice has never been served for these individuals.

They have lived a life of professional and personal disgrace and embarrassment for a crime they never committed, for which they never received a full, fair, and complete hearing in a court of law, and basically remain convicted in both the court of public opinion, and some official documents, for being the root cause of the Three Mile Island accident.

I think it leaves a terrible black mark on an industry, and also prevents full closure of the event by allowing this injustice to remain open for so long.

You are in a position to correct it.

These individuals were the victims of an industry breakdown, not the cause of one.

” And I think I can agree with what Michael wrote here.

It doesn’t seem right to punish control room operators if they weren’t trained for these situations.

Procedure was different, and so much has changed since then.

I’m not saying no investigation should have been done on them whatsoever, but it doesn’t seem like shaming these men for the rest of their lives is a good solution either.

I wasn’t there, so I obviously do not know exactly what happened, but it does seem like the system and the way things were handled are more at fault here than the individuals.

Thankfully, not only did this spark massive change, but it sparked change from the very top.

The president at the time, Jimmy Carter himself, created the President’s Commission On The Accident At Three Mile Island, a panel of 12 people chosen for their strong pro or anti-nuclear views to produce a final report about what happened at Three Mile Island.

Their overall conclusion was this.

To prevent nuclear accidents as serious as Three Mile Island, fundamental changes will be necessary in the organization, procedures, practices, and above all, in the attitudes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and to the extent that the institutions we investigated are typical of the nuclear industry.

In their findings, this commission went on to explain that, we note the preoccupation with regulations.

It is of course, the responsibility of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to issue regulations to assure the safety of nuclear power plants.

However, we are convinced that regulations alone cannot assure safety.

Indeed, once regulations become as voluminous and complex as those regulations now in place, they can serve as a negative factory in nuclear safety.

We find a fundamental fault, even with the existing body of regulations.

They also added, it is our conclusion that the training of Three Mile Island operators was greatly deficient.

Insufficient attention was paid to possible serious accidents.

We find that there is a lack of closure in the system, that is, important safety issues are frequently raised, and may be studied to some degree of depth, but are not carried through to resolution.

This portion was really telling to me.

Many safety issues had been raised, but not really followed through.

I feel like we’ve seen this a lot with various businesses.

So many times we see abundantly clear issues in an industry, but we just accept it the way it is, and sort of move on.

At least in this case, those figures that we went over earlier seemed to spark real change.

And as for the health issues, what the commission found was that some two million individuals living within 50 miles have a minuscule additional chance of dying from cancer.

And when all these minute probabilities are added up, they total 0.


We found that the mental stress to which those living within the vicinity of Three Mile Island were subjected was quite severe.

Throughout the first week of the accident, there was extensive speculation on just how serious the accident might turn out to be.

The financial cost too was astronomical, with their estimates at one to $2 billion to fix.

Thankfully, the cost was on the low end of that range, and totaled just over a billion dollars to fix.

Even if that’s something to be thankful for, at least we have that.

Now back to the new protocols put in place.

Remember how I mentioned the two control room workers having attended the Navy nuclear’s program?

Well, one admiral, Hyman G.

Rickover, an unusual name if I’ve ever heard one, testified before Congress to explain why they had a record of zero reactor accidents, and what could be done differently.

He said back in 1982 that, “I think that ultimately we will need nuclear power because we are exhausting our nonrenewable resources, that is, coal and oil.

I think they will go far more rapidly than we think they will, and the cost is already going up.

I believe that nuclear power for commercial purposes shows itself to be more economic, but that’s a fake line of reasoning because we do not take into account the potential damage the release of radiation may do to future generations.

I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation.

Then you might ask me, why do I have nuclear-powered ships?

That’s a necessary evil.

I would sink them all.

And I’ll be honest, that wasn’t really what I was expecting to hear from the Admiral.

He’s known as the father of the nuclear Navy, yet calls it a necessary evil.

I know that might be a bit dark, but honestly, I’d say that’s the reason they haven’t had so many errors.

When you have to have someone doing something that’s dangerous and risky, and you truly wish you weren’t relying on it, then you’d probably want someone handling it with a really professional attitude than a casual one, right?

I know there’s also a lot of myths out there about how nuclear energy is so evil, and exaggerations on the radiation it causes, and its impact on the environment.

I’m not saying it’s something to be terrified of, because there are advantages to nuclear energy.

It’s reliable, cleaner than coal, and far less deadly than natural gas burning.

Yet perhaps in part because of incidents like these, the public is fearful of nuclear power, seeing it as an incident waiting to happen.

It probably doesn’t help when so many of us think of a nuclear power plant worker, we’re probably picturing Homer Simpson, too, right?

(chill music) So I don’t want to just try and pose this as a, nuclear power plants are dangerous type situation, but rather, this one dangerous incident shaped the safety regulations we have around power plants today.

Again, not unlike the Radium Girls, and how their tragic stories shaped laws protecting workers, but there are undoubtedly changes to nuclear power plants, and it’s important that they, like any other energy source, are treated with care and caution.

Not saying I think people should be paranoid about it, but I rather have someone that’s overly cautious, and even a bit more pessimistic and realist when handling these plants, than someone flippant, and the company that supposedly trained the two control room operators prior to this accident.

Moving on, though, it wasn’t until 2019 that the facility at Three Mile Island was actually shut down, considering how long nuclear plants take to dismantle.

According to “The New York Times,” 40 years after the worst commercial nuclear power plant accident in United States history unfolded on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the only nuclear power reactor still operating there is preparing to shut down.

The facility, which is near Middletown, Pennsylvania, has been losing money, and in a statement on Wednesday, Exelon Generation, the company that owns the plant, said it would be closed by September 30th.

The company and its employees had been hoping for a subsidy from the state, and when that fell through, a shutdown was the only option, that statement said.

A company spokesman said the cost of decommissioning the site was estimated at around $1.

2 billion.

It was, as “The New York Times” reported in the aftermath, an accident that would generate a week of doomsday fear, panicky flight, conflicting statements, noisy demonstrations, and intense confusion.

Disaster struck in the early morning hours of March 28th, 1979, when water coolant pumps failed and a reactor overheated.

The temperature kept rising after a stuck valve misled the operators into stopping the flow of emergency cooling water.

There was a partial meltdown, and the plant was in crisis for several days.

Radiation was purposely released into the air to relieve pressure within the system.

Public panic was fueled in part by the sense that people weren’t getting enough information about what had happened, and what they should do to stay safe.

The damaged reactor on Three Mile Island was never restarted.

And overall, I find this to be just a fascinating bit of history.

From what I’ve researched, it seems like everyone was scrambling, from those at the plant, to the government, to its citizens.

As terrifying and worrying as it might’ve been, I can at least celebrate the fact that no one died, and laws were changed as a result.

Even though a nuclear reactor meltdown may never be a good thing, this is weirdly a best case scenario, especially when you compare it to the likes of Chernobyl, Windscale, K-19, and others.

I’m not trying to minimize the fear this caused, but at least it wasn’t worse, and the changes made were there so that we can see hopefully a bright future with nuclear energy, right?

But with that being said, that’s where I’m going to end today’s “Prism Into The Past.

” I hope you enjoyed this episode, and if you did, make sure to like, follow, and subscribe so that you can stay up to date on all the latest episodes.

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Thank you all again for making it to another episode.

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