Happy Birthday, Three Mile Island

Two nuclear anecdotes to ponder for today.

Photo by Frédéric Paulussen on Unsplash

According to a U.S. NRC Fact Sheet, it happened like this:
“The accident began about 4:00 a.m. on March 28, 1979, when the plant experienced a failure in the secondary, non‑nuclear section of the plant. The main feedwater pumps stopped running, caused by either a mechanical or electrical failure, which prevented the steam generators from removing heat. First the turbine, then the reactor automatically shut down. Immediately, the pressure in the primary system (the nuclear portion of the plant) began to increase.

“In order to prevent that pressure from becoming excessive, the pilot-operated relief valve (a valve located at the top of the pressurizer) opened. The valve should have closed when the pressure decreased by a certain amount, but it did not. Signals available to the operator failed to show that the valve was still open. As a result, cooling water poured out of the stuck-open valve and caused the core of the reactor to overheat.”

Photo by Frédéric Paulussen on Unsplash

This accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania was the most serious in nuclear power plant history, until Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushami (2011). Though the physical damage to the two million inhabitants of the region who received toxic exposure was the equivalent of one third of a chest x-ray, the psychological damage was such that no amount of PR spin could heal the injured nuclear power industry.

In reflecting on this occasion, I wanted to share a pair of memories which are as yet unrecorded in magazines or books.

Nuclear Anecdote #1

I used to be a security guard at Research Cottrell back in 1973–76. Research-Cottrell was the company that built the cooling towers for nuclear power plants like Three Mile Island. This was a very hot business and people were making a lot of money building these things. I actually did not know much about the company or what it did. I simply clocked in at four p.m. and went home at midnight, or clocked in at midnight and went home at eight in the morning.

The company had several facilities in the area where I lived in New Jersey. My duties were at first performed in the plant in Bound Brook (on the rim of Bridgewater) and later at the company’s corporate headquarters on Route 202–206 just North of Pluckemin. It was a minimum wage position, perhaps two dollars or two-and-a-quarter an hour. Punctual, breathing human beings were all that was required evidently.

During my time in the Bound Brook plant, I was still a young hippie in college. Occasionally guards toked on the job, inhaling of course. (I was unaware of any other way to smoke pot at the time.) I knew a guard who did acid there. The job was not demanding.

Security guards in those days essentially took an hourly walk about the facility and punched a time clock which kept a record of the guard’s movements throughout the night. And on one occasion, while seated alone at the front desk preparing to make my next early morning round, a phone rang.

I wasn’t sure just what to do, so I answered it. The voice was near hysterical. There was an emergency at the Connecticut power plant and no one knew what to do.

“Well, like, dude, what am I supposed to do about it?” I’m thinking. I get the phone number and promise to call back.

I call Captain Loupas, head of the security guards, who notifies me that there is probably a list of emergency phone numbers in the drawer at the front desk where I am seated. I open the top drawer and, sure enough, there is.

After reading through the list, I select the most likely person to call and dial the number. It is somewhere between four and five a.m.

“Who the ^%$^* is this? Do you %$^%$^ know what time it is?”

I identify myself and explain that things are out of control in Connecticut. After more verbal abuse I answer his next question.

“No, I don’t have the name of the person I spoke with, only a number.”

He says they will deal with it in the morning and hangs up on me.

Evidently, the situation got resolved because Three Mile Island didn’t happen till five years later.

Nuclear Anecdote #2

After graduating from college in 1974 I continued to do security guard work at night and volunteer work during the day. But at this point I had received a promotion and a 25 cent raise. In addition, I’d been relocated to the corporate headquarters.

The following summer while down near Sunset Lake just off Washington Valley Road I got into a conversation with a man who, upon learning I worked at Research-Cottrell, expressed grave concerns about the way they build these nuclear reactors today. I asked for details, which he bitterly provided.

He told me that eight years earlier he had been a foreman for one of these cooling tower building projects. There was an exceedingly high amount of importance placed on every detail. He said that a pipe or girder or any facet of the building had to be so precise that it could not be off by more than one inch in 100 meters.

“But now…” he lamented eight years later, he was on another building project as a worker, not foreman, and some of these things were off by eighteen inches. He said the sloppy workmanship and careless attitudes scared him.

I never knew where the plants were that he worked on. I only recall his concern. He did not like what he saw, but he was told to either be quiet or lose his job. In this light, it may be easy to understand the why of how Three Mile Island happened.

According to Michael Grunwald at Time.com, “If the Three Mile Island atomic reactor near Harrisburg hadn’t melted down 30 years ago today… well, there probably would have been an accident somewhere else. The entire U.S. nuclear industry was melting down in the 1970s, irradiated by spectacular cost overruns, interminable delays and public outrage. Forbes later called its collapse ‘the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale.’” ~Three Mile Island at 30: Nuclear Power’s Pitfalls

Am I a believer in the power of nuclear energy? Yes, I am a believer in the science and technology. But these anecdotes reveal a dark side that concerns me as well. How about you?

Related Links

Fukushima Vs. Chernobyl Vs. Three Mile Island by Brian Dunning, Skeptoid
Fukushima Vs. Three Mile Island Vs. Chernobyl by Mike Pineda, Forbes
For more details of what happened, read the NRC Fact Sheet.

Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com. Now updated.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon https://tinyurl.com/y3l9sfpj

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