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Three Mile Island  (Source: Ohio Citizen)
If anything, minor mishap illustrates the extreme safety of well-maintained reactors

There's a double irony in the weekend's reports of a nuclear "radiation leak" at Three Mile Island.  The first irony is that anti-nuclear advocates seized so quickly on the news to advocate disallowing future reactor construction, when modern reactor designs would actually be much safer to our country than our current older designs.  The second irony is that now that the actual details of the overblown accident have surfaced, it is clear that the incident is actually evidence of the exemplary advances in safety of our nation's nuclear systems.

News of the leak at Three Mile Island during routine refueling, maintenance and steam generator replacement broke via a Nuclear Regulatory Commission announcement on Sunday.  The incident occurred at approximately 4:00 pm Saturday (2100 GMT) at the containment building of Unit 1, the active reactor that's adjacent to Unit 2, the site of the infamous March 1979 partial meltdown, our nation's closest flirtation with a serious nuclear mishap.

While the Unit 2 meltdown led to no deaths or injuries, it nonetheless remained a sensitive spot for our nation, particularly when Russia's mismanaged and poorly designed Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant leaked in 1986, leading to 56 direct deaths and many more attributable by cancer.   Thus perhaps it is understandable why the AFP's statement on the accident was slightly tense, describing:

"It's a minor incident," [NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci]  said stressing it was "under control."
Three Mile Island suffered a major accident in 1979, with the core of a reactor partially melting down.
Since then no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States.

Others showed less far less disinclination from sensationalize.  ABC News 6 of the Philadelphia area wrote, "They were wearing protective suits, but about 100 were still contaminated."

The article, now edited to remove the alarmist claims can be found here, while the original text can be found displayed here.  Many other articles and forum posting across the internet conveyed a similar confusing and garbled story, often biased by antinuclear attitudes.

Now the facts have come out, and it appears that the "accident" was really much ado about nothing and that only a handful of employees (about 20, not 100) were exposed to any radiation at all.  One of the site's many highly sensitive nuclear sensors was triggered, sounding an alarm.  The plant's 150 employees that were on site were removed, the area was cleaned and work recommenced.  One employee received an extra 16 millirems of radiation -- about the equivalent of three X-Rays (an average plant employee receives about 2,000 millirems a year, below the federal guidelines of 5,000 millirems, but slightly more than the average background dose of 240 millirems).  And that was the worst that happened.

The area is now safe yet again and workers have resumed the maintenance on the plant, readying it to produce clean, alternative energy at a reasonable price.  There was no threat to public health, and virtually no threat to employees.

FirstEnergy, which runs the plant; the NRC staff; and the maintenance workers certainly deserve praise for their vigilance and diligent response to the incident.  However, the incident if anything offers one more example of the high degree of safety at the U.S. nuclear power plants.  And if anything it offers a compelling argument of why safer, more-efficient modern reactor designs seem like a great idea for our country's green power needs. 



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RE: TMI
By randomly on 11/24/2009 6:27:49 PM , Rating: 4
Obama had nothing to do with the shutdown of Yucca Mountain. The shutdown of Yucca Mountain repository was already in the works before Obama was elected. He is not responsible for that one. It's mostly due to increased political power of the Senators from Nevada in the related committees.

Unfortunately we still need a geologic repository for spent fuel, no matter if you reprocess the waste or not. Reprocessing and transmutation can however reduce the amount of waste and it's lifespan by orders of magnitude, but the technology needs to be developed to the point where it can be deployed. Public sentiment and politics currently don't supply enough political will to move forward on that front in a serious manner.

Spent fuel must sit around in pools of water for years anyway till the decay heat diminishes to the point where it can be removed and put into dry cask storage. The capacity of geologic storage (Yucca Mountain) is limited by the radioactive decay heat of the spent fuel, not by the volume of the fuel.

France generates about 80% of it's electrical power from nuclear, but there are caveats. That's actually only about 13% of it's total energy budget. Also nuclear power is baseload power, France sells surplus onto the European grid but then buys back peak power from mostly hydrocarbon generated power from other countries. France's spent fuel reprocessing program although technically very successful is an economic failure. Nuclear is not a panacea. It does have great potential though.

With the modern Gen III+ and Gen IV reactor designs we will not see another Chernobyl disaster. Although TMI and Chernobyl did terrible damage to the image of nuclear power in the public's mind the resulting extreme safety consciousness it created in the nuclear industry has resulted in designs that are vastly safer and more fault tolerant than previous reactor designs. Many of the designs are passively safe, even under total loss of power, coolant losses etc. the reactor won't run out of control or melt down.

Nuclear power is neither some horribly dangerous evil nor a panacea for all our energy needs. It is a complex subject though and very few people have the time or training to actually understand it in sufficient detail to reach their own conclusions. The vast majority just assimilate someone else's opinion on the subject. Unfortunately this means world opinion ends up being mostly a marketing war between different ideological camps and decisions are not based on rational analysis.

I for one think nuclear power has great potential, but it clearly needs some serious focus, effort, and money be spent on developing reactor technologies, material research,waste reprocessing, transmutation, and disposal. All with an emphasis on safety and economics.


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