Sunday, April 07, 2002

TMI at 23

The accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2 happened just over 23 years ago. What, you didn't remember?

I guess that's a good thing. I wasn't looking for it, but I didn't see any press coverage either. If so, it's about time. Few events have been more overhyped.

I could try to explain exactly what happened at TMI, but it would take a lot of time and space and others have done it so well. This has terrific resources about the event, plant design, and even a little reactor simulation to play with. (I checked it - despite nasty accidents, you can win).

Here is a version of the event written by someone who does not have a technical background. It may be more digestible, but IMO it leaves much unexplained.

A few big picture observations are in order:
  1. The sequence of events was implausible.
  2. About everything that could go wrong did.
  3. Piping layout, instrumentation and training issues and poor operations practices aggravated the problem and contributed to non-optimal decisions by operators.
  4. A huge explosion took place within the containment building.
  5. Part of the core melted down.
  6. Some radioactive material was released to the environment in a controlled fashion to avoid the potential of uncontrolled release.
  7. Despite it all, I have heard that TMI's environs received less dose from TMI than they were eventually to receive from the Chernobyl accident half a world away. I'm looking for a link for this.
  8. A bad Jane Fonda movie called "The China Syndrome" had opened the week before. It might have disappeared without a trace without this free publicity. So even the PR guys had lousy luck, and the public was given a warped view of the nuclear power industry that went unmatched until "The Simpsons".
  9. Major changes occurred in the aftermath involving plant design, operations, emergency planning and others, and were applied to existing plants as appropriate. Often this were done without any semblance of cost/benefit analysis, which drove the capital costs of nuclear power plants through the roof.
  10. This says:
    The TMI-2 accident caused concerns about the possibility of radiation-induced health effects, principally cancer, in the area surrounding the plant. Because of those concerns, the Pennsylvania Department of Health for 18 years maintained a registry of more than 30,000 people who lived within five miles of Three Mile Island at the time of the accident. The state's registry was discontinued in mid 1997, without any evidence of unusual health trends in the area.

    Indeed, more than a dozen major, independent health studies of the accident showed no evidence of any abnormal number of cancers around TMI years after the accident. The only detectable effect was psychological stress during and shortly after the accident.
The contrast between the above and Chernobyl is amazing. More on that in the next week or so, along with the 16th anniversary.

If anyone is interested on more detail or clarification, don't hesitate to ask. I never worked at TMI, but I worked at a site like it and three others besides.

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