Three Mile Island

Name Class Teacher March 15th, 2011 The Policy Effect of Three Mile Island Though we have had worries and issues on how to handle our power situation in the future, nuclear power has always been a sparkling prospect. It has been gleaming there just waiting to be tapped. After the bombs and destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the world started to explore other avenues to use the science and power of atoms and came to discover nuclear power. Although this technology seemed like a god sent, there are inherent problems with the use and deployment of nuclear power.

These problems have the potential to cause significant loss of life. In fact they have caused the loss of life before. Due to these issues, nuclear policy has always been a hotbed of debate. In actuality only several of the hundreds of reactors in existence have had problems. The first noteworthy accident and the one that will be discussed today was the accident at the Three Mile Island complex, here in the USA. Another accident occurred several years after at the Chernobyl compound. This accident which took place in the former USSR is the worse reactor accident to date and massive casualties were incurred.

In addition to these; the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which occurred earlier this month has put several reactors there in potentially an even worse place than Chernobyl. Focusing on Three Mile Island, this almost horrific accident occurred in the late seventies and was very close to going super critical (i. e. that is melting down). This accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear complex has greatly affected the United States of America and international nuclear policy. In the USA no reactors have been built since this accident.

The accident reignited people’s fears of nuclear power. Stepping back for a minute, nuclear power first started evolving in the 1950’s. While research in this area had been done well before the fifties it was all for the purpose of academic and military use. This changes in 1954 when Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act; this law allowed the release of previously secret knowledge and data on nuclear power and physics. (Walker 3) The significance of this dissemination of knowledge is so that civilian ompanies and individuals may start creating an industry and field to advance nuclear power to everyone. The passing of this act effectively privatizes and commercializes nuclear power. Although this was a big step for achieving widespread adoption, nuclear power still didn’t really kick off right away. The main reason for this was probably do to the fact that at the time coal and oil (which were the primary generator type) was so cheap and readily available. (Walker 4) The industry started out small in 1962 when six small private reactors began generating power for the residential power grid.

What really kicked it off was the production of turnkey reactors by General Electric ™ and Westinghouse ™. A Turnkey reactor literally means a reactor that one needs to just turn a key to start but generally the term is applied to low maintenance reactors where all one really has to do is watch over the reactor for it to work. While General Electric and Westinghouse lost vast amounts of profits building and managing these reactors; they achieved their ultimate goal which was to stimulate the nuclear industry. Walker 4) With these turnkey reactors, nuclear power became widespread to many civilian markets. Many of the nuclear reactors still operational were built in this turnkey reactor era. As for policy and regulation there have always been two distinct opinions on nuclear power. In politics and the media they always debate either for it with the unlimited miracle of power or against it with the death and human casualties that can come of it. Opposition has always been strong; and with strong grounds after multiple incidents some of which resulted with the loss of life. Critics of the proposed plants cited dangers of radiological contamination that might result if the reactors were built” (Walker 9). Hence to help ease concern in the area of radiological contamination, steep fines and strict regulations of radioactive release have been put in place. Even with these policies there was still fear of nuclear power. “At the beginning of nuclear power organized opposition to nuclear power remained sporadic and localized but by the mid seventies antinuclear activism gained wide influence and apple” (Walker 9).

This feeling of antinuclear activism spread across America much to the dismay of the industry. Even with this mindset against nuclear power, the people who were supporting it argued that this power was necessary to solve our energy crisis. They argued that while there may have seemed to be a sufficient amount of power at the time, in the relatively near future we would be put in a situation where coal and oil run out and are left with no alternative power sources. They (the pro nuclear supporters) acknowledge that developing the technology imposed risks on the population, but they insist the benefits far exceed the risks” (Walker 17). This was a considerably bold statement to make because of just how many casualties could come of nuclear development if it went wrong. “In the minds of its supporters, nuclear power was essential to meet the energy requirements of the United States” (Walker 19). This is the way the pro nuclear people looked at it; future generations’ supply of power is a more pertinent concern than the current generation’s immediate health.

As expected by that kind of strong comment; not everyone supported it and some people were even outraged by those kinds of decisions. “The issues surrounding the safety, necessity, and reliability had erupted into a full-fledged national controversy by the mid 1970s” (Walker 20). The debating did not evolve or amount to anything but vivid words, due to both sides having valid arguments; so in the end no one really won the nuclear debate. There are still people fighting for or against it. In ways it is still going on today in our government.

A very accurate comment, perhaps even the most accurate comment; from those days of heated debate comes from Joanne Omang – a journalist for the Washington Post at the time observed “They’re either scaring us about the horrors of [a] nuclear holocaust or scaring us about the horrors of inadequate” (Walker 20). Both sides got really intense about this seemingly endless debate. Plastering it everywhere, both sides were guilty of guerrilla advertising. Both sides through their campaigns attempted to play on emotions and manipulate people based on this. While nuclear advocates used emotional appeals in advancing their arguments, critics were even more inclined to make their case by evoking strong sediments. Perhaps the most arresting example was a poster that antinuclear protesters often carried at rallies. It asked ‘what would you do in case of a nuclear accident? ’ and provided a hauntingly apocalyptic answer: ‘kiss your children goodbye. ’” (Walker 20). This was really strong stuff to a lot of people; asking a parent to kiss their children goodbye implying they might not get the chance later or ever that they imply something bad will happen to them.

These emotional campaigns and guerrilla advertising must have had an effect on the public due to public opinion of nuclear power rising. By 1975 a poll indicates that 63% of the public favored nuclear expansion while 19% opposed it and 18% did not feel one way or another. (Walker 22). With this kind of support from the public the power grid of nuclear power expanded to an all time peak. To regulate this new growth and to ensure that the nuclear complexes stay safe Congress created the Atomic Energy Commission. This commission was responsible for licensing all the new nuclear plants.

Licensing involved ensuring all policies were followed in the building and operation of the plant. Eventually the Atomic Energy Commission was replaced with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission due to multiple shortcomings and incompetence’s of the Atomic Energy Commission; There biggest shortcoming is the lack of regulating they actually did as well as their emergency awareness and response factor. The act that caused this reorganization was the Energy Reorganization Act (Walker 29). This created newer up to date policies that allowed safer operation.

With these newer regulations more building permits for new plants were requested. A request for license and building permit for the Three Mile Island location was submitted in 1968. The request was approved and the permit specified for an eight-hundred megawatt nuclear generator to be built. The plant was completed in 1974 and went right into commercial operation. The reactor was manufactured by Babcock and Wilcox; who was a generic manufacture for reactors. These Babcock and Wilcox™ rectors were common in many other plants.

Although they were fairly safe they had some inherent flaws. The actual reactor type used was a pressurized water reactor. The advantages in this type of reactor system come from their extensive stability and the quick ability to shut them down. (Walker 47). This being said the pressurized water reactor model is not perfect from flaws. The biggest flaw in this reactor type and what contributed to an escalation of the Three Mile Island incident is the fact that these reactors must always have high pressure water cooling them.

Without this constant water flow they will overheat and begin to meltdown. Initially the reactor did not have a dazzling safety record. “In the year after it received its operating license, the reactor experienced at least twenty trips. ” (Walker 48). A trip, also called a SCRAM, is an immediate shutdown of a reactor, either automatically or manually by an operator, in response to a malfunction. “The problems at the Three Mile Island reactor were not unusual … The plant was off-line about 71 percent of the time during their first year. ” (Walker 48).

In terms of reactors, scramming is one of the last things you would want to do; it’s a worst case scenario. To say that the reactor had had dozens is a sign that it should have been shutdown and reexamined. Several years later on March 28, 1979 the reactor had the now infamous accident that would inevitably end in much suspense the closing of this reactor. The accident was caused due initially to system failure but then was escalated and aggravated by human error. If humans had not intervened, then the emergency shutoff system would have stopped the plant and the accident would have never happened (Nave).

The initial problem that set the wheels of failure moving was the failure of the main feed-water pump. The second event to occur was the shutoff of the turbine automatically. Due to this shutdown of the turbine the pressure rises to 2255 psi, and opens relief valve which fails to close. Once the valve fails to seat the reactor detects high pressure and “scrams” by dropping all the safety control rods in the reactor. The fission reaction stops in the reactor but heat is still produced. This triggers the emergency water pumps but the fuel rods are so hot that the cooling water boils away immediately.

At this point the ECCS (Emergency Core Cooling System) turns on once the reactors pressure drops below 1600 psi. ECCS basically floods the containment vessel with a massive amount of high pressure water. If the ECCS had been left on uninterrupted the reactor would have cooled down and the situation would be over. The operators decide however to override the system and shutdown the ECCS for fear of the reactor pressure rising to high. At this point radiation levels outside the reactor reached a peak of 0. 00035 rem with 200 rem being potentially fatal.

Back to the relief valve failed to close, an overflow situation was caused in the “Quench Tank” which caused safety rupture disks in the quench tank to rupture and spill radioactive water onto the floor of the containment vessel. The spillage of water on the containment vessels floor caused a pump to be activated which pumped the spilled water to an auxiliary tank. Normally the filling of this auxiliary tank would not be of concern but the problem occurred when the auxiliary tank overflowed and cause some radioactive gasses to be released.

The radioactive gasses that were released were Xenon-135 (several day half life), Krypton-85 (10 year half life), and a slight amount of Iodine-131 (extremely toxic; 8 day half life) (Nave). As for other radiation levels the plant had over twenty devices measuring the rems during the accident and most were reading between 1-7 millirems per hour (Walker 84). “The NRC requires that nuclear plants restrict their emissions during normal operation so that a person who stood on the boundary of a plant twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, would not be exposed to more than about 5 millirems a year” (Walker 84).

So even with this small amount released it still violated regulations. What really come up as a concern here is that when these reactors were designed, they were made to the specification were no radiation should ever be released. It is clear that these reactors were not up to par since they were releasing radiation. As for the health effects of that small about of radiation, “Neither scientific experts nor regulatory bodies guaranteed that a person who received less than a permissible doses of radiation would remain free of injury; they did not claim that a threshold existed below which exposure was harmless.

But they were confident that the limits offered an ample, if not absolute, margin of safety from radiation hazards. ” (Walker 85). Many studies were done on all ranges of people who were near or on site at the Three Mile Island Complex such as children and women who were pregnant at the time and there have been no proven or linked health effects of the finite amount of radiation released. (Walker 86). Even the health effects are still debated though. With public concern rising to a level of hysteria during this crisis President Carter decided to visit to ease the public’s concern. Walker 81). President Carter arrived in Three Mile Island and achieved his goal. In his touring of the complex he showed the state and nation that there was nothing to worry about. Many though that he would not go there if he were actually in danger; in actuality he was in a very large amount of danger from radiation and explosions. When the accident occurred the first people who the plant turned to were the NRC (Nuclear Regulator Commission). The NRC was unprepared to handle this kind of accident.

This is mostly due to the fact that they had not had any problems they have had to deal with before and also due to the fact that they generally deal with licensing and policies and not accidents. They set up a command center in Bethesda Maryland and then sent a team of inspectors and scientists down to the Three Mile Island power plant facilities. Their role in the crisis was to advise both the President and local government officials on courses of action. (Walker 80). The reactor was eventually declared safe after it had cooled and the threat of a nuclear leakage was over.

Once the reactor was declared safe, they locked the reactor up for several years to let the radiation die down and also to allow the uranium fuel rods to cool. After several years specialist went back into the plant to open up the containment vessel to extract the fuel rods and other debris. What they found is that the containment vessel base was half way melted though and if they had not stopped it when they did the uranium slag would melt through the containment vessel and seep into ground water and our rivers and water supply (Nave). The reactor has been decommissioned, and sealed no more cleanups is necessary. Walker 85). The industry had a noticeable response to this incident through increasing safety. Their biggest fear is that they would be scrutinized by the public and be inspected thoroughly for safety violations. The pressurized water reactors that were manufactured by Babcock & Wilcox were retrofitted & modernized to prevent similar situations from happening. The reactors that were ordered to be built were canceled. Also some of the other pressurized water reactors were decommissioned as well. The major point of Three Mile island is that no new reactors have been built since then (Stencel).

Three Mile Island fortified the fears held by those opposed by nuclear power. They had proof to show how dangerous reactors could be. No one could put up an argument to this. With the living fear of what had just occurred the industry were not able to get public support on more reactors. This fear lives into today affecting our policy. The fact is even now when we are deep in a recession and in a power crisis the concept of new nuclear power plants has been touched on very little. Works Cited Boudreau, Jay E. “Three Mile Island: Aftermath and Impact. ” Editorial.

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