Anniversary at Three Mile Island: The Original Electric Crisis

It only takes four steps to sabotage a nuclear power plant, says Dave Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists nuclear safety engineer. "Buy a comfortable chair. Buy a big-screen TV. Buy plenty of snacks and beverages. Sit back and watch sports while the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear industry undermine safety until they cause an accident."

Most of us are kicking back all comfy. Rage is focused on the World Trade Organization, on genetically engineered crops, on the lack of affirmative action. Indeed, these are all good places to put activist energy. Nuclear is geezer technology. There hasn't been a meltdown in the nation since Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island lost control March 28, 1979. That problem with Chernobyl in 1986 -- well, that was the old Soviet Union. It couldn't happen here. Relax. That's the conclusion from all the statistics proffered by the nuclear industry.

[Calif. Paragraph] Unless you believe the nuclear industry, though, the 22nd anniversary of Three Mile Island's meltdown is cause to get up off the couch for a moment of reflection. Nuclear power is slithering out from under its rock this year in force. Just this month, San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Diego passed one more hurdle to get permission for on-site high-level waste storage (known as "dry cask") from the Coastal Commission, despite concerns about seismic instability. Also this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission discussed dry cask storage for Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo.

[National Paragraph] Unless you believe the nuclear industry, though, the 22nd anniversary of Three Mile Island's meltdown is cause to get up off the couch for a moment of reflection. Nuclear power is slithering out from under its rock this year in force. The walls are closing in on high-level waste storage. With no permanent national radioactive dump, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is rapidly approving on-site waste storage. That will make 103 de facto dumps scattered all over the nation instead of one national sacrifice area now aimed at Nevada.

In addition to the rapid move to on-site waste storage, federal regulators are being relatively fleet about extending reactor's licenses 20 years beyond their current expiration dates. The process is called, aptly, "GALL" -- for Nuclear Power Plant Generic Aging Lessons Learned. It's a one-size-fits-all license extension. And if the industry and the NRC get their way, it will be imposed all over the nation with little or no public input. It means that nukes will be pushed into working beyond retirement age. Observers, like Lochbaum, claim reactors age much like humans. They are prone to frailties the older they get and become an increasing safety hazard that can't be patched with a hip replacement.

One last reason to be thinking of Three Mile Island is that with the accident now 22 years behind us, cancers would just be starting to show up, if indeed, enough radiation was released.

In Pennsylvania, the NRC estimates that 2 million people were exposed to 1 millirem of radiation during Three Mile Island's meltdown. That's twice the level allowed for pregnant women. But, the federal government says that's less than a full set of chest x-rays. Cold comfort.

At 4 a.m. March 28, 1979, a few hours after the movie theaters closed that were featuring "China Syndrome," the non-nuclear portion of Three Mile Island's feedwater pumps stopped short. That ceased heat removal from the reactor's associated steam generators. (All nuclear fission is, really, is a highly technical way to boil water to turn steam turbines.) The pressure in the reactor shot up. A pressure relief valve in the emergency feedwater system that should have helped out was left closed after being tested earlier that week. Pressure mounted. Once the valve was opened, water flooded in, but the process left big bubbles in the reactor devoid of water. Gauges showed the system was full so the operator quit sending in more water.

With the lack of sufficient water, nuclear fuel overheated and began to melt down. Unlike the "China Syndrome," it didn't melt through the reactor floor to earth's center on the way to China. But the radioactivity in the water was high and escaped into the atmosphere, exposing a huge population. Two days after the accident, preschool children and pregnant women within five miles of the plant were evacuated.

What remarkably didn't happen was that the hydrogen bubble that built up in the reactor didn't blow the top off, a la Chernobyl.

With the electricity crisis growing in the West, reactor owners are touting their nuclear plants as holding the line against rolling blackouts. The nuclear industry recently began pushing hard for nuclear as a "clean" source of power (because it emits little greenhouse gases). And earlier this month, the nuclear industry's best buddy in the Senate, Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) introduced a bill encouraging construction of new nuclear plants and to subsidize completion of half-built ones. Domenici's bill would limit reactor owner's liability in case of an accident.

You can relax and wait for the nuclear industry to sabotage itself. Or you can get off the couch and pay tribute to the 22nd anniversary and the gestating cancers near Three Mile Island.

-- J.A. Savage is senior correspondent for the independent publication California Energy Markets.>

Sidebar: Radiation's Risks

Many adults years past their first divorce and third car weren't even born when Three Mile Island's nuclear fuel melted. When Chernobyl sprayed lethal radiation far and wide over the Ukrainian countryside, many readers were watching Sunday morning cartoons in their jammies. Thus, here's a short refresher course in nuclear risk.

It's one simple equation: radiation = death, or cancer, or mutations. Radiation is nasty stuff, but it's not slimy and doesn't stink. You can't see it coming. You have to trust the government or the utility owner of the reactor to be telling the truth when they claim, "There is no danger to the public."

"Any dose, no matter how small, produces some risk." Those are the official words from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, usually known for downplaying radioactive risks.

If a body is exposed to radiation, chromosomes may not replicate properly. Information carried in DNA may be altered. Radiation increases the spontaneous mutation rate of cells. Fetuses are some of the most susceptible, as radiation is not only a carcinogen but also a teratogen.

Blood-forming organs are some of the most sensitive to radioactivity. One type of cancer directly associated with exposure eats away bone marrow until the patient caves in on him or herself.

While there are specific radiation limits to those who work in nuclear plants, what gets out and into the public's atmosphere and water cannot be limited because in that case, it's an "accident." With the nuclear industry's help, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission tied exposure limits to reactor owner's economic sensibilities. The long-time rule of thumb for keeping radioactivity away from people is called "As Low As Reasonably Achievable."

-- J.A. Savage

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