“Three Mile Island still haunts U.S. reactor industry” on 30th anniversary of partial meltdown


Inside a nuclear power plant 10 miles southeast of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital, the first of a series of pumps supplying vital cooling water to the reactor unaccountably “tripped,” or shut down, at 36 seconds after 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979.

The tense, sometimes terrifying week that followed, marked by official confusion and “surreal” misstatements about the crisis’s severity, became known forever as the Three Mile Island accident, named after the reactor site on the Susquehanna River.

So opens the Greenwire (subs. req’d) story, the source for my headline. Now the nuclear power industry is trying to make a comeback, 30 years after the event that defined it for a generation.

But the legacy of TMI looms. As Peter Bradford, former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner, has noted:

The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of N.R.C.-licensed reactor operators, as good as any others, could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup job in about 90 minutes.

Nuclear power has many, many other limitations:

  • Prohibitively high, and escalating, capital costs ƒ
  • Production bottlenecks in key components needed to build plants ƒ
  • Very long construction times ƒ
  • Concerns about uranium supplies and importation issues ƒ
  • Unresolved problems with the availability and security of waste storage ƒ
  • Large-scale water use amid shortages ƒ
  • High electricity prices from new plants ƒ

For supporting, quantitative analysis, a good place to start is:

My point is not to say nuclear power will play no role in the fight to stay below 450 ppm of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and avoid catastrophic climate outcomes. My point is to shatter the widespread myth among conservatives — and others — that nuclear power will be a dominant solution to global warming. No. It is extremely unlikely to even be 10% of the total solution.

And, of course, another major accident like TMI or Chernobyl would be all but fatal to the industry. Yet such an accident would not be surprising given the current and future pace of reactor construction in China and elsewhere. Here is the rest of the Greenwire story on TMI:

When the accident occurred, movie theaters nationwide were showing the movie “China Syndrome” about a nuclear plant meltdown. After engineers finally got inside the stricken Three Mile Island Unit 2 after the accident, they learned how closely reality had closed in on fiction.

With the initial loss of cooling water, portions of the 100 tons of radioactive uranium fuel quickly began to heat up. A chain reaction of multiple equipment failures and control room operators’ mistakes followed. Before the damage was brought under control, nearly half of the reactor core with its fuel had melted down. A bubble of hydrogen gas exploded inside the reactor, and fears of another explosion gripped the Harrisburg area for several days.

The accident stopped the U.S. nuclear power industry in its tracks.

No more nuclear plants were ordered in the United States following the accident and none started after 1974 were completed, former nuclear regulator Peter Bradford notes.

“The credibility of an industry was lost,” Bruce Williams, a vice president of Exelon Nuclear, which now owns the Three Mile Island station, told a Pennsylvania newspaper in 2004.

Thirty years later, the U.S. nuclear power industry is attempting a revival, citing reactors’ ability to generate electricity without the climate-threatening carbon emissions that spew from coal-fired generators.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, overseer of the nation’s 104 civilian nuclear power plants, is reviewing industry proposals to build a new generation of reactors. The industry is asking the Obama administration and Congress to guarantee loans to pay a majority of construction costs of the first round of new plants, whose price tags today are estimated at $5 billion or more for each 1,000-megawatt reactor.

With nuclear power on the threshold of a possible revival, the industry, its regulators and its critics draw markedly different conclusions from the Three Mile Island accident.

In Senate testimony this week, NRC Chairman Dale Klein stressed his agency’s actions since the accident to tighten safety regulation across the board.

Industry leaders note that nuclear plants have logged more than 20 million hours of operations since the 1979 accident without an emergency of that magnitude. With today’s higher electricity prices, the existing nuclear plants are big moneymakers, and the last thing their operators want is a prolonged plant shutdown because of safety issues, the Nuclear Energy Institute says.

Nuclear plant design requirements have been expanded and strengthened, Klein said. Control room monitors and controls have been improved. Simulators give control room operators “what if” training in emergencies. The commission has two of its inspectors working full-time at each nuclear plant. The barrage of misinformation about the Three Mile Island plant’s condition, which fed public panic and compromised evacuation planning, led to the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Other actions to protect plants followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“Changes resulting from the accident have significantly reduced the overall risks of a future serious accident. Today, reactors are operating far more safely and reliably than ever,” said Harold Denton, the retired NRC official who commanded commission operations at Three Mile Island at the peak of the crisis.

But some leading nuclear-power critics say the industry still does not go far enough to insure safe reactor operations, or troubleshoot for possible breakdowns in materials in today’s aging nuclear plants.

“We think there is overconfidence on the part of the industry and NRC that has led to complacency,” said Ed Lyman, senior staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The absence of a severe accident doesn’t tell you how likely it is that one could occur tomorrow.”

“There are still surprises that are being encountered in operating reactors,” he said, citing new evidence about the vulnerability of critical control wiring in the case of reactor fires. “The approach to solving this problem is creeping along at a very slow pace.”

NRC and the nuclear industry “continue to make decisions based on risk assessments with incomplete knowledge,” Lyman said.

Complacent regulators

Despite improved safety regulations, critics contend that there are troubling parallels between today’s environment and the complacency about safety that preceded the Three Mile Island accident.

Investigations of the 1979 accident put the initial blame on the plant’s four control room operators, whose frantic struggles to understand the fast-moving pre-dawn calamity still make chilling reading.

The initial “trip” of the water supply pump to the reactor was probably related to a faulty valve — a problem that had happened at least twice prior to the accident. It was known but was not remedied, according to the Carter administration’s Three Mile Island investigation headed by then-Dartmouth College President John Kemeny.

Two emergency water pumps automatically started to put more water into the reactor core, and 14 seconds into the accident, an operator noticed the pumps were running. But he did not see the control panel lights that indicated another set of valves were closed, preventing that water from flowing to the reactor. One light was covered by a maintenance tag. The other was simply missed.

As water surrounding the reactor fuel rods became superheated and steam built up, a pressure relief valve on top of the reactor (and inside the reactor’s surrounding containment structure) opened as it was supposed to. But instead of closing automatically as pressure fell, it was stuck open and remained so for 2 hours and 22 minutes, draining vital cooling water inside the reactor.

Although the reactor shut down, the heat buildup was enough to melt the top of the fuel assembly. The operators did not detect that the pressure valve had failed and made no corrections. If any of these failures had been averted, the accident “would have remained little more than a minor inconvenience” for the plant owners, the Kemeny investigation concluded.

But the Kemeny panel said stopping the critique with the operators’ failures would miss the larger, more systemic problem involving the industry and NRC, its regulator. The investigation said that an overmatched NRC staff could not keep up with the pace of nuclear plant construction in the 1970s prior to the accident and was critically dependent upon the nuclear power companies to monitor their own compliance with safety standards during construction.

The panel cited the case of an NRC regional inspector named James Creswell, who learned of water pump problems at the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio in 1977. He believed it signaled a potentially serious design safety flaw in nine similar plants — including Three Mile Island.

Creswell could not get the company or his own superiors to respond to his warnings. Finally, he took his concerns privately to Bradford and a second NRC commissioner. They met on March 22, 1979. “The Three Mile Island accident was six days away,” Bradford said.

Creswell told the Kemeny investigators after the accident, “within the decision-making structure of the NRC [there is] a reluctance to come to grips with very serious safety issues.” The commission was more interested in promoting nuclear power than regulating it, the panel concluded.

2002 breach at Ohio reactor

Hopes that the lessons of Three Mile Island had been learned throughout the nuclear power industry were floored in 2002 by a potentially devastating breach of a reactor vessel at Ohio’s Davis-Besse plant, the same one that had prompted Creswell’s unheeded warnings three decades earlier.

This emergency was caused by extended leakage of acid-laden cooling water through cracks in a sleeve the top of the steel reactor vessel, which ate away a football-sized cavity in the vessel. It threatened the same emergency loss of cooling water that doomed Unit 2 at Three Mile Island.

The NRC staff had previously been alerted to possible boric acid corrosion issues at Davis-Besse and plants of a similar design. It notified plant operators that they would have to shut down for a safety inspection of the issue by Dec. 31, 2001, unless they had already done so.

Dominion, the Richmond-based power company, voluntarily idled two nuclear units to make the inspection, winning NRC’s praise. But FirstEnergy Corp., owner of the Davis-Besse plant, “fought and clawed every inch of the way,” to extend the December deadline, according to an NRC investigator’s interview with a NRC inspector. The early shutdown would cause unacceptable costs, FirstEnergy said.

A NRC review body voted to overrule the inspectors, and Davis-Besse was given until mid-February 2002 to do the shutdown and inspection. “At a meeting like that, with your boss and your boss’s boss presiding, it takes something to raise your hand and say, ‘I think, you know, we should shut them down,'” the unnamed NRC inspector later said.

The football-sized cavity was discovered in March 2002 when the plant was finally closed for inspection, six months after the NRC staff’s initial alert. A possible reactor vessel rupture could have been weeks away.

Following investigations, FirstEnergy paid a record $33.5 million in fines to settle civil and criminal complaints. A Davis-Besse engineer and supervisor were convicted of felony charges of willfully giving NRC false information about safety inspections, receiving fines and probation.

“The real lesson of Davis-Besse or even [Three Mile Island] is that we must never get complacent,” NRC Commissioner Gregory Jaczko said this month. “Neither event was thought to be probable, or significant, until the very moment when they happened.”

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27 Responses to “Three Mile Island still haunts U.S. reactor industry” on 30th anniversary of partial meltdown

  1. barryjo says:

    I believe it is interesting to note that, after TMI, Physicists calculated that a person flying coast to coast, at altitude, would receive more radiation than a person living downwind of TMI. I was always amazed when a person would come for a routine x-ray exam with a deep, golden tan, and worry about the amount of radiation from a chest x-ray. Not even close. But then I remember the ’50’s scare about radiation from your TV set. How much was MSM hype, then and now?

  2. Rick C says:


    I was looking up the literature on the 3 Mile Island nuclear accident and I came across an entry at IMDB DVD/VHS movie review site on “The China Syndrome” and an entry from someone who stated that was a nuclear engineer and was making the case that the China Syndrome was hyped by Hollywood and the media because, he claims, the metal containment area surrounding the nuclear reactor core was 6 inches thick and the heat generated from the limited amount of matter from the fuel rods was absorbed and distributed throughout the containment vessel and would therefore prevent a meltdown. He goes on further to claim that a larger meltdown of the core even if it melted through the containment vessel would likely not meltdown and spew up radioactive steam because the 6 inches of steel would have absorbed the intense heat or if it had it would not meltdown far enough into the earth to reach an underground aquifer. Is this an accurate assessment or is this person a professional PR troll hired by the nuclear industry?

    Also have you read Samuel Walker’s report at the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists at and what is your take on his account?

    PS: I lived in New Jersey at the time and I saw China Syndrome 1 week before the event and my 18th birthday came on the 27th only one day before.

  3. paulm says:

    I thing the Financial Crisis melt down also reflect upon what ultimately will happen in this area.

    It demonstrates the human nature component to system failures that are virtually impossible to overcome. It also show how even large institution can fail catastrophically and cyclically because of this.

  4. Bob W says:

    Meanwhile, 200 miles away in Monroeville, PA, the Westinghouse geeks are dancing in the aisles as multiple copies their new “passive” reactor are being built in China and licensed in the US. The order book is filling up. Let’s hope they’re as safe as advertised.

  5. Bob Wallace says:

    Rick – IMO the issue is not how close or not-close 3 Mile came to catastrophic failure. The issue is that there is some level of danger associated with nuclear energy that is not present in other energy options.

    There is a low danger of meltdown/leaks, a danger of nuclear materials being used in a dirty bomb, and the dangers created by the disposal of nuclear waste.

    An additional argument made by Mark Jacobson is that if the US goes the nuclear route as opposed to using non-nuclear methods to produce power, other countries will follow our lead and we’ll see nuclear plants in great numbers even in the most unstable parts of the world.

    “Once you have a nuclear energy facility, it’s straightforward to start refining uranium in that facility, which is what Iran is doing and Venezuela is planning to do,” Jacobson said. “The potential for terrorists to obtain a nuclear weapon or for states to develop nuclear weapons that could be used in limited regional wars will certainly increase with an increase in the number of nuclear energy facilities worldwide.”

  6. paulm says:

    Is this for real? I never hear about any of these details before…

    People Died at Three Mile Island

    …My research at TMI also uncovered a plague of death and disease among the area’s wild animals and farm livestock. Entire bee hives expired immediately after the accident, along with a disappearance of birds, many of whom were found scattered dead on the ground. A rash of malformed pets were born and stillborn, including kittens that could not walk and a dog with no eyes. Reproductive rates among the region’s cows and horses plummeted.

  7. barryjo says:

    Paulm: google TMI. Forget Huffington. The NRC report should tell you what you need to know. No one died at tmi. Is there a risk with nuclear? Of course. There is a risk with anything. One has to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks. Given the current environmental climate, none of the current sources of energy is acceptable. People are electrocuted every year. Should we ban electricity? Aspirin would never be approved today.

  8. paulm says:

    Whats wrong with the Huff?

  9. Steve H says:

    Just ask South Carolinians how wonderful their new nukes will be, should they ever be built. They’re paying something like 37% more for electricity to help fund the possible construction of these. Ameran is trying to get the Missouri legislature to overturn a voter-initiated ban on utilities collecting construction costs for new generation facilities, which would mean a steep increase in rates without any guarantee that new plants will be built. People want to complain about the costs of renewables, but don’t recognize that nuclear will probably cost more. Aside from the sheer risk, nuclear is just not prudent financially.

  10. When it comes to man made disasters in the 20th century, even the worse nuclear accident in human history, Chernobyl, is dwarfed by several other human caused events:

    On December 20, 1987, the Philippine- registered passenger ferry, the MV Dona Paz, sank after colliding with the MT Vector oil tanker resulting in more than 4000 deaths. We all remember the substantial loss of life aboard the Titanic back in April 1912, but this is cited as the worst peace-time maritime disaster in history.

    In response to a fog induced cold snap in London back in December of 1952, the people of London began to burn a lot more coal. This resulted in polluted air being trapped by an inversion layer formed by the dense mass of cold air. The ‘Great Smog’ initially killed some 4000 people with an additional 8000 dieing several months later.

    The Bhopal India chemical disaster started on December 3rd, 1984. A Union Carbide subsidiary accidentally released 42 tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from a pesticide plant. More than 8000 people died within two weeks time. Some estimate the people still suffering from this disaster may raise the death toll to over 15,000 people.

    On August 8th, 1975, the breach of the Banqiao Dam in China released 700 million cubic meters of flood water in just 6 hours, wiping the Daowencheng Commune completely off the map, killing all 9,600 of its citizens. Approximately 26,000 people died from the flooding and an additional 145,000 died from the resulting famine and epidemics in the Henan Province area. 5,960,000 buildings collapsed affecting 11 million residents.

  11. Joe B says:

    Global warming is a Slow Motion Nuclear Bomb

  12. Bob Wallace says:

    So Marcel, your argument is that nuclear hasn’t (so far) set the all time record for human deaths we should go full speed down the nuclear pathway?

    Financial cost, time to implement, and safety are all issues that we must consider as we plan our solution. Sweeping safety under the carpet is not in our best interest.

  13. paulm says:

    Ok Bob, so when will they be able to move back an live and farm around Chernobyl? Looks like the accident is still happening and will be for some time….

  14. Bob Wallace says:

    Sorry Paul, don’t know (and don’t know why you’re asking me).

    Guess you’ll have to google that one….

  15. amazingdrx says:

    Great aniversay, Nuclear Power, rest in piece(s) in unlined landfill trenches and fuel rod “swimming pools’, for 10,000 years. taxpayers will foot the bills, at a rate of 10 bucks per kwh of nuclear power produced? Hehey.

  16. Mark Shapiro says:

    “An additional argument made by Mark Jacobson is that if the US goes the nuclear route as opposed to using non-nuclear methods to produce power, other countries will follow our lead and we’ll see nuclear plants in great numbers even in the most unstable parts of the world.”

    Thank you, Bob Wallace.

    I have never heard a conservative make the obvious case against nuclear: It requires, promotes, and build big government: subsidies, regulation, and bureaucracy. Nuclear puts concentrated, unchecked power in fallible, human hands at home and abroad.

    Why are conservatives so enamored of something that violates so many of their core principles simultaneously?

  17. paulm says:

    sorry bob, that was meant for Marcel F. Williams.

  18. Geoff Hnederson says:

    We live in the age ofaccountants, those who worship the bottom line as the holy grail. And at whatever cost.

    “FirstEnergy Corp., owner of the Davis-Besse plant, “fought and clawed every inch of the way,” to extend the December deadline, according to an NRC investigator’s interview with a NRC inspector. The early shutdown would cause unacceptable costs…”

    And the accountants are still at it, countering every move that deals with climate change with horrendous “cost” scenario’s. But I have yet to see them estimate a cost of “not-doing”. That is by failing to get past their myopic bottom line they are improving the chances of worse-case global warming. Now it’s good to have bean-counters, but blend them with some empowered scientists who can guide them to a conclusion that will allow options “outside the accountants professional square”.

    Personally I don’t want to see a future laden with nuclear reactors. But if it gave us the necessary time to get our act together, say 25 years, then in the absence of a viable alternative, I might be convinced to go for it. But having said that, I notice dramatic improvements are being made in battery charging speeds, longevity of Li-ion batteries and other efficiencies that can, with the right political will, and less oposition from Big Oil, mean that EV’s and hybrids could, within 10 years make huge inroads into oil use and consequent pollution. Need I say, it would also have some impact on our middle east oil dependence.

  19. Bob Wallace says:

    “Personally I don’t want to see a future laden with nuclear reactors. But if it gave us the necessary time to get our act together, say 25 years, then in the absence of a viable alternative, I might be convinced to go for it.”

    But right there is the single largest problem of using nuclear to combat global warming.

    Nuclear can not buy us time.

    We cannot get a significant number of new reactors up and running in the next 20 years. We have neither the manufacturing capacity nor the technically trained manpower to do it.

    And if we spend vast sums of money to rapidly expand our manufacturing capability and train thousands of new workers we take money (a non-infinite resource) away from technologies that can be brought on line in very large amounts in the next 5 – 10 years. And during those lost years we pump more and more CO2 into the atmosphere.

    Time to bail with the buckets we’ve got rather than build a new plant to manufacture bilge pumps….

  20. Bob Wallace says:

    “Why are conservatives so enamored of something that violates so many of their core principles simultaneously?”

    Because, IMHO, lots of conservatives don’t think.

    They just follow and cheer for their team.

  21. Bob Wallace says:

    May I add another government (taxpayer) subsidy for nuclear to the discussion?


    Nuclear plants are attractive targets for terrorists. They could be a source of materials for a nuclear/dirty bomb or simply a way to scare the hell out of the general population. (Set off some explosives close to the reactor and get yourself some major terror payout.)

    We must be spending a lot of money in clandestine services keeping an eye on our reactors.

    We probably have more “swat team” costs because we would have to react hard and fast if terrorists got inside. (Remember last year when they found all the security staff at one reactor asleep?)

    We have to train local fire, police, and hospital staff how to deal with a melt-down, as low probability as it might be.

    The local fire guys have to suit up and inspect the storage tanks at Humboldt Bay a few times a year even though the reactor has been shut down for decades. (And they still haven’t found that missing fuel rod. Spent a lot of money trying to figure out what happened to it….)

    Think we’ve got fighter jets on standby in the event that someone might try to fly a plane into a wind farm?

    Just like oil requires a huge military presence in the Mideast and coal produces huge health problems we give nuclear a free ride by not admitting all the hidden subsidies that add to its real cost.

  22. Bob Wallace says:

    And some more…

    People like to talk about how cheap power is from the already built nuclear plants in the US.

    But aside from the security costs that I listed above, shouldn’t we be adding in the cost of all the plants that were shut down along the way? Places like Rancho Seco, San Onofre Unit 1, Zion, Humboldt Bay, Trojan, …. And the plants like Shoreham which were built but never produced?

    Seems like “too cheap to meter” cherry picks the data, using the hits and ignoring the misses. Seems like we should take all the money invested (including government subsidies) and dividing that into the amount of power we’ve actually received in return.

    Furthermore, does anyone really want to argue that “we won’t screw up again”?

    Remember that ceiling in the Big Dig tunnel? Stuff happens.

  23. Mark Shapiro says:

    “But aside from the security costs that I listed above, shouldn’t we be adding in the cost of all the plants that were shut down along the way?”

    Why yes, Bob, indeed we should.

    Many now realize that nuclear power went from “too cheap to meter” to “too expensive to matter”.

  24. barryjo

    The potential to contaminate large areas with radioactivity is a unique danger.

    So is the ability of civilian nuclear energy to lead to nuclear weapons, which is maybe the biggest problem. How do you prevent situations like Iran from appearing all over the world?

    It’s almost like trading the potential of one civilization ending danger for another. Global warming for nuclear holocaust.
    Why court disaster with either one?
    Don’t mind me, but I still remember A Bomb air raid drills in grammar school, where we hid under our desks. Which even the kids understood was mostly a symbolic gesture.

    I have a photo I downloaded from somewhere, of a boy of 10 or so, who had been born after the Chernoble accident. It’s not a pretty picture.

  25. Pat Cassen says:

    Joe –
    There is an extensive and knowledgeable discussion of GenIV reactors (particularly the liquid sodium cooled IFR), and Tom Blees’ book “Prescription for the Planet”, at Barry Brook’s website

    Do you have any comments specific to these reactors?

  26. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. says:

    Having engineered a score of nukes, two score fossil plants and spent ten years assessing advanced energy technologies, I find there are so many fundamental errors in the article, and responses, that it would take a small book to correct. I never worked on TMI, but am personally acquainted with the engineers that rendered TMI safe, and the radcon expert who entered the Chernobyl power plant shortly after it exploded. From forty years of Professional Engineering, most in energy technologies, let me make some overarching comments. The NRC, by law, is not allowed to consider cost, yet circa 95% of the cost of a nuke is dictated by the NRC. It has an untenable mission, because cost and risk are fundamental to any industrial investment. More fundamental are two societal characteristics which cripples American technology, far beyond nuclear. The first is that from the hippie generation, there has been a distrust, even hatred, of centralized authority. No one in the NRC, the industry, or the anti-nuke crowd is trusted. I have found cheats and liars on all sides. The technology is complex, which provides wide areas of disagreement, but I here address lying via technobabble. This is exacerbated because the US ranks almost dead last among advanced nations in science and math. Journalists, as a cohort, have almost no grasp of technology, and value the scoop far more than accuracy. In an emergency such as TMI, this was disastrous. The people who lived through TMI were traumatized by sensationalism. All over America, people voted for decision makers on the basis of error. Today, citizens can find scientific papers which claim no long term harm from the TMI event, and other papers, using the same data, which find massive medical problems, e.g. cancer, monster births. I recall Pilate’s words to Jesus, “What is truth?” This was spoken right before he condemned an innocent to a horrible death. Science means truth, the certainty of considered facts, but it is sadly lacking in nuclear energy.
    There are two long term effects from the TMI event which are ignored here, but are vital to national survival. The first is that the US is losing, or has lost, the nuclear option. Virtually every one who ever engineered a plant is retired or dead. The universities quit teaching the necessary course work decades ago. Thus the US no longer has a cadre of expert engineers in an extremely complex technology. Moreover it will be far more difficult to restore excellence in this work force than it will to restore our other degraded professions, e.g teaching. The second is that other nations are, and will pursue nuclear power regardless of US technology policy. In some key technologies, e.g. reprocessing, we are decades behind other societies. These effects interact. A large minority of engineers working in the US come from foreign lands. Without their skilled focused ability, our toilets would not flush and our lights would go out. Yet there is a recent trend for many to leave, a disastrous brain drain has started to flow toward Asia. The prime stated reason is that the US no longer offers opportunity to engineers. I judge this is linked to our foolish chronic energy policies, and TMI.
    Finally, I am certain that whoever solves the nuclear power – global warming riddle, will dominate the 21th century. I am not certain America will survive this challenge.

  27. No one died at Three Mile Island or the surrounding area. Thirty years later the the conspiracy buffs are still at it. Uranium/thorium reactors are much safer than uranium only reactors. An added bonus is that the fuel rods cannot be used for nuclear weapons when spent. Also, what will the world do when the oil runs out, what will be the alternative?