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What is Three Mile Island and what really happened?

Today, we’re discussing Three Mile Island,  not just an island, but also one of the most serious accidents in the history of US commercial nuclear power plants. It’s a truly fascinating history, one that I believe many of you will find as intriguing as I did while researching it. So, let’s dive right in.

The US Nuclear Regulatory 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, affecting one or two reactors on the site. A mechanical or electrical failure prevented the main feedwater pumps, as shown in the animated diagram, from sending water to the steam generators, which are responsible for removing heat from the reactor core. This led to an automatic shutdown of the plant’s turbine generator and, subsequently, the reactor itself. Immediately, pressure in the primary system (the nuclear piping portion) began to increase, leading to the opening of the pilot-operated relief valve located at the top of the pressurizer. The valve should have closed when the pressure fell to proper levels but remained stuck open. Instruments in the control room, however, indicated that the valve was closed, leaving plant staff 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 that the plant was experiencing a loss of coolant accident. I’m not well-versed in nuclear power plants, so some of the technical language used here is unfamiliar to me. However, what has become clear over time is that this incident resulted not only from a mechanical error but also from human error. It was a perfect storm, one might say.

Samuel J. Walker’s book, “Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis In Historical Perspective,” details the incident. On page 74, he wrote that the operators saw no definite signs that the plant was suffering a loss of coolant accident and was in danger of core unrecovery, where the core is not fully covered with water. Apparently, their training programs had not prepared them for these conditions. 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. One might expect them to have been prepared. Metropolitan Edison, commonly known as Met-Ed, certainly seemed to think so. The point is, both mechanical and human errors played an immeasurable role in this partial meltdown and radiation leak.

What I find most fascinating about this particular moment in history is what followed. Some articles claim there were no lasting health effects, while others allege that the government covered it up, pointing to a spike in cancer-related deaths. Let’s explore some of the immediate effects.

Initially, people were told that everything was under control. I understand the reluctance to cause panic, but it’s clear that the situation was far from being under control. One source states that the crisis in confidence began almost as soon as the accident did, on Wednesday, March 28th, 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 was under control. By afternoon, Scranton had altered his statement, acknowledging that the situation was more complex than initially presented. By Friday, the stage had been set for full-scale panic. Officials were still issuing reassuring statements about the reactor’s status, but schools had been closed, residents were being urged to stay indoors, and farmers were being warned to protect their animals.

Then two significant developments occurred. 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, concerns arose about a gaseous bubble in the reactor that appeared to pose an explosion hazard. For many, it was already too late to take action. The damage had apparently been done. One woman who ran a daycare center, Corradi, recounted that after fleeing to her mother’s home 40 miles away, her nine-year-old son vomited up a vile green slime. Others remembered a metallic taste in their mouths immediately after the accident, while residents in the area complained of rashes, nausea, and respiratory problems. Medical experts seemingly dismissed these complaints as symptoms of stress. Some residents surrounding Three Mile Island now consider this an old wound that should be left alone, and I can understand that perspective. However, 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.”

I won’t delve into all the things the American people have been lied to about in 2020, especially regarding COVID-19, as it quickly becomes highly politicized and divisive. Being deceived about health-related matters is indeed reprehensible. I understand the hesitation to cause panic or convey exaggerated information, but transparency and honesty are vital.

So, how serious was this incident? states that 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. Several government agencies and independent groups conducted studies, but no adverse effects could be found to correlate with 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. 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, four times as many infants as normal were born with the disease in late 1979.

Dr. David Goldenberg, a surgeon and thyroid researcher, launched a study in 2017 to investigate these lasting effects and whether they were due to Three Mile Island or mere 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 born in counties around Three Mile Island, present during the accident, and treated at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. “We found a shift that 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 follow-up 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, I appreciate that Goldenberg acknowledges the limitations of his own study and the complexity of the issue. It’s essential to consider multiple sources and evidence when addressing such significant matters. Rather than jumping to conclusions, we should focus on obtaining a comprehensive understanding.

Regarding the aftermath, it’s crucial to note that the incident significantly influenced the anti-nuclear movement. Three Mile Island became a symbol for the movement, solidifying concerns about nuclear power plant safety among the general public and prompting the need for new regulations in the nuclear industry. Analysis of the accident identified serious flaws in the system, leading to fundamental changes in how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulates nuclear power plants. Upgrades and improvements in plant design, equipment requirements, fire protection, containment building isolation, and emergency protocols were implemented.

Today, there are far fewer and less frequent events with lower risk that could lead to reactor core damage. Safety systems have been activated only a fraction of the times compared to the past. Radiation exposure levels for plant workers have steadily decreased and remain well below national limits. In 2007, there were 52 unplanned reactor shutdowns, whereas in 1985, there were 530. Trust was eroded, and thus, guidelines had to change.

However, when it comes to the control room operators, Faust and Frederick, as well as their supervisor and shift foreman, some believe they were unjustly blamed. Due to the inadequate regulations in place at the time, true justice may not have been served. A letter written 35 years later in 2014 to the chairman of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission stated, “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.”

I can sympathize with this perspective. It doesn’t seem fair to perpetually shame control room operators if they were not adequately trained for such situations. The fault may lie more with the system and the way things were handled than with the individuals themselves. While I wasn’t present at the time, it appears that the system’s shortcomings were more to blame than the individuals operating within it.

Fortunately, this incident prompted action from the highest level. The President at the time, Jimmy Carter, established the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island. This panel, comprising members with both pro and anti-nuclear views, was tasked with producing a final report on the Three Mile Island accident. Their overall conclusion was that fundamental changes were necessary in the organization, procedures, practices, and attitudes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry as a whole to prevent accidents as serious as Three Mile Island. They emphasized that regulations alone could not ensure safety, and they identified deficiencies in operator training and the resolution of safety issues.

This part of their findings stood out to me: Many safety issues had been raised but not thoroughly addressed. It’s a pattern we’ve seen in various industries where clear issues are recognized but not adequately addressed. In this case, at least, the incident prompted substantial changes.

Regarding health effects, the Commission found that approximately two million individuals living within 50 miles of Three Mile Island had a minuscule additional chance of dying from cancer. When all these tiny probabilities were added up, they amounted to 0.7. The Commission also noted the severe mental stress experienced by those living in the vicinity of Three Mile Island.

In 2019, the Three Mile Island facility was finally shut down. Decommissioning the site was estimated to cost around $1.2 billion. Although it took several decades, the plant was eventually closed due to financial difficulties.

In conclusion, the Three Mile Island incident is a captivating piece of history. While it was a terrifying and unsettling event, it’s important to recognize that it could have been far worse. No lives were lost, and it led to significant changes and improvements in nuclear power plant safety regulations. It also played a role in shaping public perception of nuclear energy. While not without its challenges and controversies, nuclear energy continues to be an important topic for discussion, and it’s essential that we approach it with caution and responsibility.

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