Commentary: Three Mile Island 40 years later: Another turning power

In the early morning hours of March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power facility in Middletown, Pennsylvania went on alert as a result of a serious accident, one which was the result of both equipment malfunction and human error.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

The aftermath saw a near-meltdown of one of the facility’s working reactors and the loss of innocence about nuclear power’s risks. That event was a turning point for civilian nuclear power, just as the present period represents another crucial juncture.

I was a senior at Susquehanna University (SU) in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania in spring 1979. Selinsgrove is about 50 miles from Middletown. When the TMI event occurred, I was with other SU students competing at a Model UN Security Council Conference at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

As the crisis unfolded, my friends and I split our time between the TV and the conference. We soon found out that within a few days of the TMI accident, most of SU students, faculty, and staff had evacuated the area. Though our team won the Best Delegation Award at Duquesne, our joy was muted by the eerie silence which greeted us upon return to SU.

Though the external radiation which nearby residents were exposed to as a result of the accident was said to be akin to an X-ray, ignorance and fear took over.

Both President Carter and Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh visited the TMI site in a bid to calm residents and assess the situation. Ironically, a just-released Hollywood film, “The China Syndrome,” depicted a nuclear accident strangely similar to the sequence of events at TMI: a faulty valve indicated an overflow of water, so coolant valves were closed to prevent an overflow; when the valve was fixed, it showed dangerously low levels of water, such that the core of the reactor was briefly exposed. Unlike in the movie, however, a hydrogen bubble formed and threatened the entire facility for days before it dissipated.

TMI’s devastating impact on the nuclear power industry was evident. First, the cleanup from the 1979 accident — having to collect and dispose of millions of gallons of radioactive water which was left from the effort to prevent overheating of the reactor — took 14 years and cost more than $1 billion.

Second, the accident forced a reevaluation of nuclear power’s place amid American energy sources. To wit, there were no new nuclear power sites opened between 1977 and 2013.

Later challenges to nuclear power came via the 1980s movement to divest the world of nuclear weapons and from the even more serious accidents at Chernobyl in Ukraine (1986) and at the Fukushima nuclear facility in Japan (2011).

Though no one died at TMI in the immediate aftermath of the accident, medical authorities are still tracing higher than normal patterns of thyroid cancer in the area of the facility which may have emanated from iodine exposure caused by venting of gases after the accident.

The current fixation with the Green New Deal (GND) simultaneously creates obstacles and opportunities for the future of nuclear power in America and worldwide. Approximately 100 nuclear power facilities in the United States generate 20 percent of the nation’s energy and 33 percent of the world’s nuclear power output.

While nuclear power is not specifically referenced in the GND primary document, an accompanying web site lists the following goals pertaining to nuclear power: stop construction of all nuclear energy plants; decommission all functioning nuclear reactors within a decade; and transition to “clean, renewable, zero-emission” energy sources as soon as possible.

Yet, several countries recently invested in nuclear power as a way to reduce their carbon emissions, including France, Norway, Sweden, Costa Rica, and Uruguay among others. Further, a study of Vermont’s switch from nuclear to other energy sources revealed an increase in utility rates as a result. Finally, the natural gas revolution in the United States has reduced the need for nuclear power sources while likewise increasing safety concerns associated with fracking.

Ultimately, nuclear power is a commodity and therefore subject to economic factors. So it is with the TMI facility in Middletown — projected to lose money in 2019 — which is scheduled to close in September unless a bailout plan can be worked out. That people select this form of energy based on cost is logical.

Yet, it is also makes sense to continue supporting nuclear power based on environmental concerns: according to climate scientist James Hansen, nuclear plants have actually saved nearly 2 million lives that would have been lost to air pollution. If technicians, policy makers and advocates can reach a consensus on dealing with vital safety issues associated with nuclear power, its future as an energy source for millions across the globe will be secure.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. He is a native of Pennsylvania, home to 10 percent of all nuclear facilities in the United States.

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