Nuclear power one year after Three Mile Island

"Everyone lives in Harrisburg." This slogan, coined shortly after the unprecedented accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania one year ago, illustrates one of the most significant aftereffects of the first major disaster in the history of commercial nuclear power.

Before Three Mile Island ( inevitably dubbed "TMI"), the debate over the future of commercial atomic energy was largely an elitist one. Pro-and anti-nuclear advocates argued and analyzed the related risks and benefits in technical forums, in the halls of congress, and in the courts. Opinion polls repeatedly showed an ignorance of the basic issues among the American public.

But the weeks of high drama beginning March 28, 1979 -- played out within the massive concrete building on a small island in central Pennsylvania and viewed on television sets around the world -- broadened the debate substantially.

"One important spinoff of Three Mile Island is getting the public educated. In the long run, we'll be much better off as a result," says Thomas Pigford, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the presidential commission that investigated the accident.

It has transformed the once-abstract and easily ignored possibility that a nuclear reactor could self-destruct into an undeniable reality.

Nevertheless, the net effects of this technological trauma have so far been surprisingly slight. The positions of the presidential candidates on nuclear power range from Ronald Reagan's unqualified endorsement to Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s uncompromising opposition, but most of them support at least some reliance on it until other sources can be developed. Congress has yet to pass any significant nuclear legislation. Opinion polls have shown public support for nuclear power vacillating between 50 and 60 percent. Although orders for a dozen US nuclear reactors have been canceled, this can be attributed to other, mostly economic, factors.

Although TMI has been widely covered and debated Europe, the nations there have maintained a strong commitment to nuclear power. Even in Sweden, where anti-nuclear sentiment has run very strong, 58 percent of the voters cast their ballots in favor of continued use of nuclear power last weekend.

As a result, "I'm very pessimisti about the future," confides Richard Pollock of Critical Mass, a national anti-nulear organization in the US. "There has been very little movement. It is almost as if Three Mile Island never occurred, " he laments.

This is not to say that the accident has been without repercussions. In the last year the number of Americans who are committedly anti-nuclear, particularly the utility firms that own nuclear power plants, has been galvanized into taking a number of safety actions. And the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which regulates the nation's commercial nuclear reactors, has spent a year in soul-searching, turmoil, and attempted reorganization.

Most directly affected are the people who live in Middle- town, Harrisburg, and the other communities around the stricken power plant. Their problems were just beginning when the pictures of the gracefully curved colling towers of Three Mile Island faded from the nightly television news.

After the reactor was brought under control, more than a million gallons of radioactive water and highly radioactive gases remained. Cleanup efforts in the past year have centered in auxiliary buildings. Only this month have workers been able to set foot in the reactor building, and then only for 90 minutes.

Until the highly radioactive krypton gas can be removed rom the containment building, it is impossible for workers to attack the trickiest and most dangerous aspect of the cleanup: removing the severely damaged core.

But proposals to gradually vent this krypton into the outside atmosphere have aroused the fear and distrust of local inhabitants. In the last few months, their emotional state has approached that of mass hysteria. Community leaders recently paid a call on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, to warn that, should venting be allowed, it could provoke violence.

"In the last 2 1/2 months, fear and anger have grown. It is starting to boil over," says Steve Brooks, a member of a coalition of 20-odd anti-nuclear groups which have sprung up in the area in the last year.

Over this period, a series of incidents -- in particular, accidental releases of small amounts of radioactive gas that were not immediately reported -- have greatly decreased local trust in the NRC. Also, local citizens with geiger counters have claimed readings higher than those reported by the NRC.

The NRC, the State of Pennsylvania, and General Public Utilities, which controls and operates the TMI reactor, concur that the krypton can be vented under controlled conditions while keeping radioactive levels in the area to extremely low dosages -- less than one-hundredth of the average from natural sources. The utility company and the NRC have expressed concern that, if this is not done, failure of machinery inside the reactor building could lead to uncontrolled release of the gas, thus raising the specter of re-ignition of a nuclear chain reaction in the damaged core should cooling pumps fail.

The local people, however, simply do not believe these official assurances. Their fears have been heightened by the recent Pennsylvania Department of Health reports of an abnormally high number of children born with birth defects. Radioactive iodine, one of the gases released at Three Mile Island, is believed to be a cause of birth defects. NRC representatives have flatly denied that the TMI accident could be responsible, saying that such effects coild occur only with doses thousands of times higher than those estimated.

"Our position is opposed to the venting of krypton until we have reliable information about the conditions inside the reactor building and on alternate methods for removing the krypton," explains anti-nuclear coalition leader Brooks.

One alternative involve cryogenics -- that is, cooling the gases in the reactor building to super-low temperatures to liquefy them. After liquefaction, the intensely radioactive krypton can be isolated. General Public Utilities estimates that such a process would take two to four years and add significantly to the cost of the cleanup.

While the utility has stuck with estimate of $400 million for the cost of cleaning up the reactor, other estimates range up to $1 billion.

On March 25, 1980, General Public Utilities filed a federal court suit seeking more than $500 million in damages from the plant's designer and supplier , Babcock & Wilcox Company, charging it with "gross negligence, strict liability for equipment failure, intentional breach of contract, and breach of express and implied warranties."

The utility also is trying to convince the utility commission to allow them to pass on the cost of the cleanup to their customers.

"If the utility commission says the accident was the result of bad management , and doesn't allow GPU to pass the costs to the rate base, then those of us with nuclear plants won't be able to raise a nickel," predicts Robert I. Smith of Public Service Electric and Gas of New Jersey.

While admitting that such a decision would be a "tough one," Carl Walske of the Atomic Industrial Forum believes that this problem could be covered by insurance arrangements. Still, those most directly affected by the accident, beside local residents, appear to be the inhabitants of the nation's electric utility board rooms.

Before TMI, the utilities played only a minor role in nuclear reactor safety matters. They relied heavily on reactor manufacturers and the government.

"The utilities were sold on the idea that a reactor was just a better way to boil water," says one member of the industry, who believes that the sales efforts of manufacturers are in part responsible.

This attitude led utilities to design control rooms along the lines of those in conventional coal-and oil-fired power plants. At Three Mile Island, this design contributed to the accident by making it difficult for operators to get an accurate picture of what was happening within the reactor. It also influenced their approach to the job description amd training requirements of control and room operators. This job was upgraded slightly from the operators of conventional plants, but not much. Now these assumptions are being seriously re-evaluated, say utility executives.

Believing all the assurances they had received on the safety of reactors, Three Mile Island came as a major shock to many utility presidents, who, after the decision to purchase a reactor, had blithely turned all the details over to subordinates. As a result, the most vigorous industry response has come from utility executive offices.

Utility leaders pushed creaion of two news safety institutions, the Nuclear Safety analysis Center (NSAC) in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) in Atlanta. The former monitors the performance of safety-related equipment and proposes improvements. The latter inspects observers reactors and evaluates them.

Industry observers say that the rapidity with which these organizations were established was just short of miraculous, considering the normal course of events.

Ed Zebrowski is the director of NSAC. "Our job is to collect all the data on the operating experience of the nation's reactors, analyze it, and feed back the analysis into the system . . . a jungle telegraph that operates every day, rather than once every three months," he explains.

The purpose of NSAC is to correct a disturbing problem found by members of the presidential commission: There were accidents prior to Three Mile Island that went almost unnoticed and completely uncorrected by the industry or the NRC.

NSAC has analyzed the TMI accident intensively. And in February, when the Crystal River nuclear power plant in Florida was shut down because of electrical problems and a coolant leak, it sent in a team. Within two weeks it had composed a report that was distributed to all nuclear reactor operators.

"A few years ago Crystal River would have gone almost without notice," Dr. Zebrowski points out.

NSAC has also compiled a list potential problems for indepth study. At the top of this list is the failure of backup power and instruments, the cause of the Crystal River incident.

Another NSAC project is a special display panel that can be easily fitted into existing control rooms. It displays, side by side, 24 crucial readings that give " a comprehensive picture of the reactor's status," Dr. Zebrowski says. In normal operation, one-third of these are buried in the computer or physically unavailable to the operators.

"We have played through all manner of accidents and have found that [the display system] gives a clear view of system status," says the safety expert. Such a display would make it easier for operators to make the correct decisions in an emergency. The system could be wired into the NRC Emergency Response Center to provide up-to-date information to plant operators so they can't complain of being "blind men, stumbling in the dark," Dr. Zebrowski says.

While NSAC acts in strictly an advisory capacity, the other new industrial organization, INPO, is supposed to have more clout. Within a few weeks, it will begin conducting audits of commercial nuclear installations, says director of administration William G. Beyer. These will delve into every area: management, operator training, maintenance, emergency planning.

"This operation is addressed to the fundamental lesson of Three Mile Island, that you have to go a step above hardware and establish the highest levels of human performance," Mr. Beyer says.

Members of the industry have a relatively good idea of which plants are not well run. Although INPO reports will be strictly confidential, insurance companies will demand to see them before issuing a policy. This will assure that all operators of nuclear plants will conform to the "benchmarks of excellence" that INPO establishes, say industry representatives.

The two members of the Three Mile Island commission with the greatest technical background, Dr. Pigford and Theodore Taylor, are impressed by these efforts. But one of their fellow commissioners, Carolyn Lewis, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, does not share their enthusiasm.

"What really bothers me," she complains, "is the big industry public-relations campaign to downplay Three Mile Island's significance. For instance, after we released our report, they ran large ads summarizing our conclusions as 'proceed, but proceed with caution." It was something we were quite careful not to say."

This public-relations effort, combined with the continued industry opposition to many of the added safety measures proposed by the NRC, has led Mr. Pollock of Critical Mass to conclude that basic industry attitudes have not changed substantially, that many of their actions are a smoke screen.

"NSAC and INPO hold out the promise of change, but do not guarantee it," he points out.

The anti-nuclear activist levels this charge at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as well. "The NRC is in as much disarray today as it was a year ago, perhaps even more," he says.

Following TMI, the NRC set up a task force charged with analyzing the mishap and making sure that other reactor operations were corrected to reduce the likelihood of a similar accident.

This task force issued a stream of bulletins and orders for three-quarters of the year before closing down. Nuclear plant operators were required to change operating procedures, install new instrumentation, reorganize control rooms slightly, and, in general, modify their procedures in relatively minor ways.

The NRC also created an office similar to NSAC to analyze operations and attempt to detect problems before they become serious.

Yet these responses are short term and limited in scope. The presidential commission and even NRC's own review of the accident critized the NRC far more severely and broadly. The presidential commission, in fact, strongly recommended a drastic shake-up. This has ben transformed into a mild reorganization designed by the Office of Management and Budget.

The problem, pointed out emphatically by the presidential commission, was the assumption that more regulations meant more safety. The commission found cases where "a vast body of regulations" may keep utilities and their suppliers from improving safety measures.

The major NRC response to TMI suggests that this questionable attitude remains. The agency recently compiled an "action plan" with more than 200 separate items. Knowledgeable nuclear critics say it is a massive and disorganized effort. Industry representatives characterize it as a "grab bag" where everything conceivable has been thrown together without any sense of priority. They agree with about one-fifth of the proposed actions.

While many of the NRC's problems are internal, it is also getting conflicting signals from Capitol Hill. While committees looking into three Mile Island are concerned with safety, members on the appropriations committees that set the NRC's budget have repeatedly pressured it to resume licensing of nuclear reactors.

According to congressional sources, Three Mile Island has made very little difference in the balance between pro-and anti-nuclear congressmen. Events in Iran, with their dramatization of the dangers of overdependence on foreign oil, seem largely to have neutralized the impact of Three Mile Island.

It is not only in Congress where other events have overshadowed the nuclear disaster. It is also true of utilities. there will be no new nuclear plants ordered in the foreseeable future, believes Alex Radin, executive director of the American Public Power Association. But this is due mostly to factors unrelated to reactor safety.

Inflation, unpredictable growth in electricity consumption, the high cost of borrowing money, the affect of consumerist pressure on public utility commissions to reduce utility profits, disarray in the bond market -- all these factors weigh against the construction of any large new power plants.

These circumstances have forced utilities increasingly to defer plant construction. Most utility executives think they will be forced to resume construction of new plants sometime in the future, at much higher cost. Because it takes from 10 to 14 years to build large power plants, they warn that electrical shortages are quite likely by the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, the growth of nuclear power continues at a rapid pace overseas. President Carter's efforts to dissuade other nations from developing the breeder reactor, which utilizes uranium much more efficiently but produces plutonium which can be used to make atomic bombs, has backfired. Results of the international nuclear fuel evaluation which the President initiated are being used to justify breeder development by France and Britain rather than discouraging it.

Although most Americans still believe that the benifits of nuclear power outweigh the risks, further reactor accidents could change that. About 500 reactor years of operation were run up before Three Mile Island took place. with 240 reactors currently operating in the world, theoretically a similar mishap could happen every two years unless safety systems are improved.

Mr. Walske of the Atomic Industrial forum believes that such a high accident rate would not prove acceptable to the public. But if the margin of safety can be increased tenfold, he says, that is a different story. "I believe we already have gained half of that factor of 10. And with operations like INPO, we will get the other half," he says.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Nuclear power one year after Three Mile Island
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today