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  • Facts, Safety, and Three Mile Island

    Despite 104 nuclear reactors safely providing 20 percent of America’s electricity, many Americans continue to fear nuclear power. Much of this anxiety results from myths surrounding the 1979 incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station. To help educate policy makers about the realities of nuclear power, The Heritage Foundation and Third Way joined forces to tackle the Three Mile Island myth head-on by sponsoring a tour by a bipartisan group of Senate staffers of Three Mile Island.

    The visit consisted of a comprehensive briefing and a plant tour. The briefing covered issues ranging from how reactors work to the advantages of nuclear energy. But the highlight was a firsthand account by an operator who was at the controls the day of the Three Mile Island accident.

    There are a few things to remember about Three Mile Island. First, is that no one was killed or injured as a result of the incident.

    Second is that it was not a nuclear incident, per se. In other words, the core did not melt down and there was no uncontrolled nuclear reaction. The system worked as designed and completely stopped the nuclear reaction within 8 seconds of the initial event that led to the incident.

    It all started with a coolant pump failure. This caused cooling water to stop flowing to the reactor, which caused a build up of heat and pressure. This relatively minor maintenance event quickly spiraled into an incident as a combination of operator error and design deficiencies prevented the heat within the reactor from being properly dissipated. This caused an immense and dangerous build-up of heat and pressure. It was not until a second group of operators began taking manual readings of the reactor’s systems that the problem was discovered, diagnosed, and resolved.

    Despite human error, inadequate safety and maintenance procedures, and a series of unfortunate decisions, the robustness and inherent safety features of light-water reactors prevented any negative human or environmental consequences. The nuclear industry took on a broad series of safety, maintenance, and design reforms as a result of the Three Mile Island incident. That is one reason why today, nuclear power is among the safest forms of electricity production.

    The second part of the day consisted of a plant tour. It included an overview of the security features of a modern, post-911 nuclear power plant. In addition to the physical barriers, including concrete and razor wire, the abundant armed guards would have made even the most skeptical of critics acknowledge that gaining access to such a facility would be nearly impossible.

    Once inside the plant, the group was taken on a tour of the turbine deck. This is where the steam generated by the nuclear reaction is funneled to spin turbines that make the electricity.

    And finally, the tour ended with a visit to the spent fuel pool. When the reactor is refueled, the spent fuel bundles are placed in a cooling pool, which is filled with regular water. Water provides a very effective shield against the heavily radiated spent fuel. Though not recommended, one could actually jump into the pool without suffering any radiation-related health effects. Two of the recently removed bundles displayed the brilliant blue glow phenomenon that is caused by radiation absorption in water.

    These bundles will eventually be removed. Right now, the federal government is required by law to take the spent fuel and dispose of it in Yucca Mountain—although they are over a decade late in doing so. If reprocessed, which is not currently done in the United States, the spent fuel could be recycled and used again. Either way, the nation requires a significant policy change to better manage its spent nuclear fuel.

    Unlike some nuclear power plants around the country whose pools are quickly filling up with spent fuel, TMI has enough space to last into the 2020’s.

    Throughout the tour, the TMI staff credibly and ably debunked the myths surround the Three Mile Island incident. Anyone who has real questions about nuclear power should take the time to visit Three Mile Island. It is a trip worth taking.

    Posted in Energy [slideshow_deploy]

    3 Responses to Facts, Safety, and Three Mile Island

    1. Steve Michaelson says:

      According to documents available at the NRC's own website, "TMI-2 plant suffered a severe core meltdown, the most dangerous kind of nuclear power accident." Because adequate cooling was not available, the nuclear fuel overheated to the point at which the zirconium cladding ruptured and the fuel pellets began to melt. It was later found that about one-half of the core melted during the early stages of the accident.

      So if your tour guide told you "the core did not melt down," your guide was not being truthful.


    2. Bill Wilderman, Las says:

      There is so much misinformation on nuclear power. This article clears up some of it.

      Regarding Yucca Mt., as I understand it, the solid nuclear "waste", i.e., spent fuel rods, totals approx. 70,000 metric tonnes. I asked the people at Yucca Mt. what size this would be if it was stacked up in one pile. After a few weeks, they replied that it would cover a football field, 4 feet high! Do you mean to tell me that, nowhere in the desert, we couldn't dig a hole, one mile deep, put the waste in it, cover it over, plant a few desert sage plants, and never, never find it?

      A far better idea would be to put it in Yucca Mt., establish a research center there, name it "The Harry Reid Research Center", if necessary. I refuse to believe that our brilliant engineers and scientists will not discover uses for the still viable fuel rods.

      After all, if two softball sized masses of nuclear fuel power our super carriers for up to 20 years, is it possible that a pea sized mass might power our cars?

    3. Bill Wadford Fayett says:

      While Mr Michealson's quote is true he omits nearly 2/3rds of the paragraph. Here is the entire paragraph for correct context.

      "Although the TMI-2 plant suffered a severe core meltdown, the most dangerous kind of nuclear power accident, it did not produce the worst-case consequences that reactor experts had long feared. In a worst-case accident, the melting of nuclear fuel would lead to a breach of the walls of the containment building and release massive quantities of radiation to the environment. But this did not occur as a result of the Three Mile Island accident."

      So the author's statement, "Despite human error, inadequate safety and maintenance procedures, and a series of unfortunate decisions, the robustness and inherent safety features of light-water reactors prevented any negative human or environmental consequences.", holds true.

      This was no "China Syndrome" as much as the Eco-Socialists would like the public to believe it was.

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