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.