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Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Louis Beacon - Analysis: Lessons and memories from Three Mile Island

St. Louis Beacon - Analysis: Lessons and memories from Three Mile Island

By Martha Shirk, special to the Beacon
Posted 9:53 am, Tue., 3.15.11

As I’ve watched Japan’s nuclear drama unfold over the last few days, I’ve found myself thinking about the similarities with the accident 32 years ago at Three Mile Island in Central Pennsylvania.

Even though we don’t yet know the full extent of the nuclear contamination in Japan and the potential for true catastrophe, it is already clear that the situation there is far more serious than it was at Three Mile Island. The cooling systems at three separate reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station have malfunctioned, and several explosions left the fuel rods exposed. As this is written, Japanese officials are worried about the potential release of more radioactive material – and even the possibility of a full meltdown at one or more of the reactors. Eleven reactor workers have been injured, and at least 22 nearby residents have been found to have higher-than-normal levels of radiation.

What is strikingly similar between Japan today and Three Mile Island 32 years ago is the inescapable perception that the situation is out of control. As at Three Mile Island, human error is compounding mechanical malfunctions.

It’s very possible that the operator of the Fukushima plant was too complacent about the risks. We learned on Monday that these particular reactors were not built to withstand an earthquake of the magnitude of the one last week. Nor, apparently, were they built to withstand the force of a tsunami, which is shocking, since a tsunami is a predictable event on a coast, where many of the world’s nuclear plants perch.

ThreeMileIsland300pre1979CDC

Government photos

Three Mile Island before the accident - the accident would shut down the reactor at right.

Perhaps the most important lesson of Three Mile Island was that complacency about risk contributed to the problem there. TheKemeny Commission(note: Link is to a pdf) concluded in its authoritative report on what went wrong that both Metropolitan Edison, the plant’s operator, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission weren’t sufficiently on guard.

“After many years of operation of nuclear power plants, with no evidence that any member of the general public has been hurt, the belief that nuclear power plants are sufficiently safe grew into a conviction,” the commission concluded. “One must recognize this to understand why many key steps that could have prevented the accident at Three Mile Island were not taken. The Commission is convinced that this attitude must be changed to one that says nuclear power is by its very nature potentially dangerous, and, therefore, one must continually question whether the safeguards already in place are sufficient to prevent major accidents. A comprehensive system is required in which equipment and human beings are treated with equal importance.”

GOING TO HARRISBURG

I was a 27-year-old reporter in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Washington bureau when the early reports of an accident at Three Mile Island came in over the AP teletype machine on the morning of March 28, 1979. (This was the pre-internet, pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook era.) A minor malfunction had occurred in the second reactor, triggering the automatic release of steam. The control room operators not only misread what was happening, but also mistakenly believed that the cooling system was continuing to work. It wasn’t, however, and to compound the problem, a backup system was inexplicably turned off, leaving the fuel rods uncovered for 2 ½ hours.

Just under three hours after the initial malfunction, high radiation levels were detected in several areas of the plant, indicating that a partial meltdown of the fuel rods had occurred. At 7 a.m., a site emergency was declared, and by 7:24 a.m., it had been expanded to a general emergency -- an "incident that has the potential for serious radiological consequences to the health and safety of the general public"

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

shirk100MarthaMartha Shirk reported for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1975-96.
She is an author and journalism consultant in Palo Alto, California.

However, at 8:24 a.m., a utility official told a local radio station’s traffic reporter that there was no reason for concern. "There was a problem with a feed water pump,” he said. “The plant is shut down. We're working on it. There's no danger off-site. No danger to the general public."

At 12:45 p.m., state police closed the state road nearest the plants. At 1:50 p.m., a hydrogen explosion occurred in the reactor’s containment building. Utility officials initially believed that the noise had been caused by ventilation damper slamming and ignored it.

By this time, I was on the road to Harrisburg from Washington, D.C., in my 1973 VW bug. Nuclear power was one of my minibeats. I had spent considerable time during my four years at the paper covering the regulatory process connected to Union Electric’s construction of a nuclear plant in Callaway County (Union Electric is now Ameren Missouri).

By the next day, the situation was becoming increasingly murky as officials with the state, the utility, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission contradicted each other. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency announced regularly that the situation was improving even as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggested that it wasn’t.

To calm the public, then-Lt. Gov. William P. Scranton III toured the damaged reactor’s control room and auxiliary building, but his visit had the opposite effect, since he wore a protective suit and a respirator. And at a press conference afterwards, he contributed to the growing sense of alarm by reporting erroneously that radioactive steam had been released. That night, Walter Cronkite told the American public: “It was the first step in a nuclear nightmare; as far as we know at this hour, no worse than that. But a government official said that a breakdown in an atomic power plant in Pennsylvania today is probably the worst nuclear accident to date…”

By later that evening, the NRC learned that the damage to the core damage was much worse than expected and that there was a strong possibility that radiation had been released. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would monitor food, dairy products, and water for signs of contamination. My editors at the Post-Dispatch arranged with Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. to loan me a dosimeter to measure any radiation to which I might be exposed.

CONFUSION

By Day Three, March 30, total confusion reigned in Harrisburg. There had been radioactive iodine released, some official said; no, there hadn’t been, said another. The NRC advised Gov. Richard Thornburgh to order the evacuation of Harrisburg, and then said it wasn’t necessary. Thornburgh instead advised people within 10 miles of the plant to stay inside.

Then, two and a half hours later, Thornburgh amended his recommendation and advised pregnant women and preschool-aged children living within five miles of the plant to leave the area and everyone else to stay indoors behind closed windows. That triggered a panic.

At the time, the Post-Dispatch was an afternoon newspaper, with three editions. I needed to file a new story every few hours. In search of a pay phone, I had gone into the Pennsylvania State Capitol to file my story. As I was dictating it to Eric Zoeckler, a colleague at the Post-Dispatch, sirens went off, and people started running out of the building. Eric wrote a gripping story about being on the other end of the phone while other people’s panic engulfed me. Within hours, schools and the local universities shut down, disgorging their students to shaky parents, who loaded them into cars and headed out of town. Police were placed on alert; banks reported massive withdrawals of cash, and the local telephone system became so overloaded that calls couldn’t go through.

Meanwhile, Met Ed officials continued to minimize the situation in their comments to reporters. As the Kemeny Commission reported, “Many reporters suspected the company of providing them with erroneous information at best, or of outright lying.” After a utility official, John Herbein, told reporters on Friday that the radioactivity released earlier was only a quarter of what NRC officials had told them it actually was, the utility lost all credibility. When challenged, Herbein said, "I don't know why we need to tell you each and every thing that we do specifically.”

threemileisland300Carterleaves

President Jimmy Carter's limousine leaves Three Mile Island.

Clearly a victim himself of conflicting advice, Thornburgh asked President Jimmy Carter to designate someone who could filter all the conflicting reports and speak with authority about what was actually happening. That man was Harold Denton, whom I still remember, 32 years later, as a beacon of calm and straightforwardness. Most reporters (including myself) didn’t have the technical knowledge to cover the unfolding events with authority; Denton was the first person to brief us who talked in plain English. He arrived in Harrisburg just as rumors began being spread about the formation of a hydrogen bubble in the Unit 2 reactor. What that meant, he said, was that there was a "remote" possibility that a meltdown could occur. NRC Chairman Joseph Hendrie said that he might order an evacuation of residents within 20 miles as a precaution.

By that evening, one-quarter of the area’s nearly 1 million residents had fled. The Associated Press was reporting that the hydrogen bubble might explode within days.

On Day 4, President Carter arrived to reassure the residents who had stayed behind. But in several less-than-reassuring developments, priests granted general absolution during Sunday Mass – an act generally taken only during war or in circumstances when people can’t get to confession. Area hospitals began to discharge patients so they’d have open beds if they had to admit people suffering from radiation poisoning. Behind the scenes, we learned later from the Kemeny Commission report, NRC’s experts were in disagreement about the potential for an explosion and the need for a complete evacuation.

On Day 5, Denton announced that NRC officials believed that the hydrogen bubble had shrunk dramatically, though he didn’t say it quite so definitively in case his experts were wrong, as they had been so many times in the previous week. “We wanted to go slow on saying it was good news,” an NRC official later told the Kemeny Commission. “We wanted to say it is good news, do not panic, we think we have got it under control, things look better, but we did not want to firmly and finally conclude that there was no problem. We had to save some wiggle room in order to preserve credibility.”

But by Day 6, the potentially explosive bubble was actually gone. On Day 7, the schools outside the 5-mile radius reopened, Harrisburg’s curfew was lifted and Thornburgh announced on NBC’s Today Show that the "threat of any immediate catastrophe is over." On Day 8, pregnant woman and preschoolers were told they could safely come home.

AFTERMATH

The official toll: No one is known to be been injured by at Three Mile Island. The Kemeny Commission concluded that "there will either be no case of cancer or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. The same conclusion applies to the other possible health effects… We conclude that the most serious health effect of the accident was severe mental stress, which was short.”

In the end, the most lasting effect of Three Mile Island was on the U.S. nuclear power industry, which went into a vegetative state for nearly three decades. It took 12 years and cost about $973 million to clean up the destroyed reactor, which has been mothballed in situ. Plans to build dozens of nuclear power plants – including a second reactor at Callaway – were canceled because of increased regulatory scrutiny and investors’ jitters.

There have been recent signs that the nuclear power industry is gaining strength as the nation looks for ways to lessen its dependence on fossil fuels. Today, there are 104 nuclear power plants operating in the United States – 32 more than when Three Mile Island began to melt down - and there have been applications for 30 new reactors filed since 2007. But the catastrophe in Japan seems likely to change all that.

If you want a good read, take a look at the Kemeny Commission’s report. And reflect on whether you’re convinced by what’s unfolding in Japan that anything has changed.

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