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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special Issue: 25 Years Since the TMI Disaster

We learned the obvious - that a combination of bad design, mechanical failure and operator error can lead to a nuclear meltdown, widespread panic, and scared and dying people. If we did not learn that then, we certainly did seven years later at Chernobyl.

(605-606.5583) NIRS

(March 12, 2004) - We learned that nuclear power, if it is to be even remotely safe, is not cheap; nuclear utilities spent tens of millions of dollars refitting existing reactors to meet post-TMI safety guidelines. Utilities building reactors at the time were forced to spend more to meet stricter safety standards. Of course, none of that made the reactors safe, nothing can.

We learned that electric utilities, once considered a safe stock option for widowers and retirement funds, lie when threatened, and that governments lie to protect them.

A significant number of people learned that their homes and their lives really were not very important to institutions many had thought little about-the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the US Congress, the Judiciary, the utilities, state governments, nuclear trade associations, the National Cancer Institute, just about every big-time player in the business of providing electricity and reassurance to the United States. Instead, they learned that their homes and lives were pretty much expendable to the myth of safe nuclear power.

In the end, that may have been the biggest, longest-lasting lesson: people are expendable when the nuclear industry is in trouble.

That is, admittedly, a sad commentary. Many of those who have caused that lesson to sink in would vigorously deny it. They would say, no, TMI did not kill anyone, the accident was contained and no, we do not want to admit anything.

Of course, they may well believe themselves, but the facts prove otherwise, as does real life. The facts, and real life, show that cancer rates have risen since the TMI accident, in precisely those areas most impacted by the radiation releases. The facts, and real life, demonstrate that TMI did kill - people, animals, plants - and caused mutations that still provoke a combination of wonder and disgust. The facts, and real life, admit that some 2,000 cases of harm were settled out of court for millions of dollars and records sealed because the utility did not want to admit the fact, and the reality of the TMI accident. Potentially thousands more cases were thrown out of court, because the court did not want to admit into evidence the facts, and reality, that more radiation was released from TMI than the utility and government want to admit.

The court can hide behind its judicial powers, but the facts and reality stand out nonetheless. People died because of Three Mile Island, and anyone who tries to tell you differently does not know the facts, nor the reality.

Just as some people and institutions would try to make you believe that only a few dozen people died as a result of Chernobyl - all firefighters and reactor operators - when, in fact, thousands, probably tens of thousands will die prematurely because of that accident, some people and institutions try to proclaim Three Mile Island as some sort of "success," some sort of proof that the nuclear age does not kill.

It is difficult, of course, to prove that a cancer is a direct result of any single thing - even cigarette smoking is for some a debatable cause of cancer. So it is for nuclear utilities also. Who, after all, would want to be blamed for death and destruction? Much better to blame it on unknown, unseen, or already improper influences. When Dr. Steve Wing finds stark evidence of increased cancer rates directly attributable to radiation released from TMI, of course those who caused it want to deny it. Especially since it might affect their ability to continue that industry.

And, 25 years later, is that not where we have arrived? Whether or not the nuclear industry will continue? Three Mile Island was not a local mishap, it was an international awakening and acknowledgement that nuclear power is a technology without fail-safe guarantees, it was the live demonstration that there is no such thing as inherently-safe nuclear power.

Back in 1979, a lot of people thought we would have learned our lesson by now. Nuclear power would be dead, or at least clearly on its way out. Even former US President Jimmy Carter, who toured TMI clad in little plastic booties to reassure an anxious nation, sought to create a renewable energy-powered future. And if TMI, and then Chernobyl, failed to kill the industry, then the waste problem will…

Give nuclear industry some credit, it is a resilient industry, one that takes punches and bounces back as if nothing had ever happened. It is an industry that can cause utilities purchasing its products to drown into bankruptcy, and then, without even taking a breath, espouse its economic benefits. It is an industry that has no hesitation in arguing that creating the world's most tempting terrorist target - thousands of high-level nuclear waste casks sitting unguarded in an open-air parking lot in Nevada - is somehow preferable to dispersed, protected storage at 70 or so nuclear reactor sites. In short, it is an industry that has no shame.

Even worse, it is a shameless industry that has many high-level backers. Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, for one wants to create, in his own words, a "nuclear corridor" running from the Texas border to the outskirts of Albuquerque. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho wants to move Idaho's high-level waste to Yucca Mountain, but nonetheless has steadfastly promoted construction of a new reactor in his state to produce hydrogen for a non-existent hydrogen fuel cell program for automobiles. New House Energy Committee Chairman Joe Barton is another who has yet to meet a nuclear-related program, initiative or relaxation of regulations to benefit the nuclear industry that he doesn't like.

And that is just in the U.S.! Across the world, the nuclear power industry is fighting back. You can read it in their internal communications; this industry feels like it has been trod upon and stomped down and we, the people, are interfering with their right to pollute, irradiate and kill as many of us as they choose, and by God, they're tired of that opposition!

Now Finland has ordered a new reactor. The temporary moratorium on new reactors in France is in jeopardy because of French nuclear pressure. In Asia, they still build reactors, don't they? And in the U.S., hiding behind the smokescreen of a licensing process that allows utilities to obtain essential site permits without ever admitting they want to build a reactor, there are three utilities seeking permits to build reactors. No, we are not fooled, we know what an Early Site Permit means - it is not just the first chance to participate in reactor licensing decisions, it is the last chance. After this, it is too late, the utility can do what it wants. This is why NIRS and Public Citizen, together with BREDL and other local and regional groups, have joined forces to challenge every single Early Site Permit applications being considered by the NRC: at Grand Gulf, Mississippi; North Anna, Virginia; and Clinton, Illinois.

Everywhere the nuclear industry goes, we must be there too, working tirelessly to remind people that nuclear power is not what its backers claim: it is not emission-free - reactors routinely emit radiation; it is not safe, people have died and continue to die from reactor accidents; the waste is not manageable, in fact, there is no place to put it; nuclear power is not economic, when its full costs are counted, it cannot compete with any energy source.

So, 25 years after we learned first-hand that the nuclear industry was everything its opponents feared, and not much of what its backers touted - and how it kept backers after losing US$1 billion dollar investment in a few hours is still startling - where do we stand? It would be comforting to argue that we are on the verge of a new energy age, one in which everyone has access to all the energy they need, clean, affordable and sustainable, but we are not there yet. It would be upsetting to think our future is solely nuclear, with a national security state ensuring that radiation leaks are never reported. In reality, we are somewhere between the two. There are more cases to be made, certainly better economic cases, that the first hypothesis is closer than the second, but that is by no means guaranteed. To create a better energy future, a better environmental future, a better economic future, is not an easy task. It requires incessant work, argument, education, organization and mobilization.

Three Mile Island dealt a blow to the nuclear power industry. Some hoped it would be a fatal blow, but it was not. Others hoped it would be a glancing blow; but it was not that either. 25 years later, arguments remain over what happened, who suffered and what was learned. If you look at the facts, the reality, there is really no doubt. If you talk to people who were there you will not doubt them. If you look at the science, you will not doubt it.

The next time you think about nuclear power, think not about an abstract cooling tower or reactor building behind a grove of trees. Think instead about the metallic taste people near TMI still feel in their mouths when they think about the accident. Think about the fear of pregnant women, told to evacuate more than 52 hours after the accident - then think about how the world criticized Ukraine for waiting 48 hours to issue an evacuation warning. Think about what the pain of cancer really feels like, and why some people in power feel compelled to deny it exists, when it is so clearly proven. Think about the dollars lost that day, and then think about the dollars the nuclear power industry still hopes to gain.

And that, in the end, is the lesson of TMI. Reactor accidents will happen, as long as there are reactors. The odds are it will not happen tomorrow, the odds just as conclusively are that it will happen again, in our lifetimes, perhaps even worse than ever. Stopping that reality means acquiring political power, because it will not stop by itself. If it did, if mere argument or persuasion or self-evident reality were sufficient, we would have won a long time ago. But it is not enough, political power is required and too often we surrender to the strength of our own arguments and say if "they" do not understand that, what can we do? The problem is that "they" understand power, and what we need to do is very clear: educate, do not expect TV to do it for us; organize, and don't stop; mobilize, and bring people out; and then do the same all over again… And if we all do that, then, in the history books, we can say: well, it took a while but in the end, the TMI accident really was the beginning of the end of nuclear power.

Contact: Michael Mariotte at



Between 3 and 4 a.m. on 28 March 1979, maintenance work was conducted at the secondary cooling system in the turbine building of Three Mile Island reactor 2. TMI-2, located near Harrisburg in the state of Pennsylvania, was an 880 MW reactor, built by Babcock & Wilcox. Metropolitan Edison Company (MetEd), a subsidiary of TMI owner General Public Utilities (GPU) operated both TMI reactors. TMI-2 was connected to the grid in April 1978 and was running for almost a year when the accident happened.

At around 4 a.m., a valve in the condensor closed causing circulation in the secondary coolant circuit to stop. The two main feedwater pumps stopped due to a lack of water and the turbine also scrammed and as a consequence heat was no longer removed from the steam generators. With non-functioning steam generators, the temperature and pressure in the primary cooling circuit started to rise. As increasing pressure could lead to pipes rupturing, a valve (Pilot Operated Relief Valve) opened automatically to release steam/water. The reactor itself also shut down automatically as its control rods were released. So far, everything was working as expected in emergency shutdowns.

The problems escalated when the pressure in the primary circuit began to drop. At that moment, the relief valve should have closed in order to prevent too much water being released from the cooling circuit but the valve remained opened, although an indicator in the control room wrongly showed that it had closed. This was caused by a design fault: the indicator only showed electricity supply to the valve but not whether it had really closed or not. With the valve open, more and more water escaped from the reactor.

Another problem occurred when emergency coolant pumps of the secondary circuit were started. Two valves in the feedwater pipes were blocked and no water could be transported to the steam generators, which ran dry. After eight minutes, the valves were opened manually.

As coolant continued to escape from the relief valve, the instruments available to reactor operators provided confusing information. None of the instruments showed the actual level of water in the reactor. The operators judged it by the level in the pressurizer (connected to the relief valve), which was still high so they were unaware of the decreasing level of water in the reactor core.

Because of the residual heat in the uranium fuel and the lack of sufficient cooling, the fuel cladding started to burst and the fuel began to melt. Within eight hours the core was (partly or completely) dry and melted fuel dropped to the bottom of the reactor vessel. It was later found that about one-half of the core had melted.

On 28 and 30 March radioactive gases were released from the plant. For the public, there was much uncertainty about the situation in the plant. The governor of Pennsylvania decided on 30 March to evacuate all pregnant women and young children within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of the reactor. Another 200,000 people left voluntarily, because of a lack of trust in the information provided by MetEd.

In 1980, decontamination work in the reactor buildings started. The reactor vessel lid was lifted in 1984 and removal work could begin inside the reactor. It was discovered that core damage and temperature levels had been much higher and water levels much lower than previously assumed. The molten fuel was removed between 1985 and 1990 and transported to the Idaho Nuclear Engineering Laboratory (INEL). Decontamination work was completed in 1993. Final dismantling of the reactor will be conducted when TMI-1 (still in operation) is to be dismantled.

Sources: Herman Damveld, 25 February 2004; fact sheet on TMI