Thursday, March 26, 2009

Three Mile Island: Across the Misty Susquehanna

three-mile-island With the anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident approaching, stories are percolating that use it as a hook to talk about nuclear energy. Let’s just say that a fair few of them would not have been written in 1979:

Nuclear reactors generate one-fifth of the nation's power. Some see nuclear as a stable, homegrown energy source in light of last year's oil price spikes. Others see it as a way to meet carbon-reduction goals.

Some other see it as Satan incarnate, but this AP story by Marc Levy doesn’t have much room for them.

Public interest is emerging, too: A Gallup Poll released in recent days shows 59 percent favor the use of nuclear power, the highest percentage since Gallup first asked the question in 1994.

We mentioned the other day that Gallup polls carry weight that others cannot match – enough to influence policy. This is exhibit A. And here’s a bit of the takeaway on the accident itself:

No one was seriously injured in the accident, in which a small amount of radiation was released into the air above the Susquehanna River island 12 miles south of Harrisburg. Studies of area residents have not conclusively linked higher rates of cancer to radiation exposure.

Journalistically careful, but okay. A lot of good material in this article – read the whole thing for an excellent mainstream look at nuclear energy then and now.

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The Washington Post offers five myths about nuclear energy. It’s a balanced assessment, not really needing the TMI hook. We think writer Todd Tucker might have reached a little to get to five:

4. Nuclear power is "unnatural."

Umm – huh?

From Godzilla to Blinky the three-eyed fish on "The Simpsons," many of pop culture's oddest creatures owe their existence to the mutating powers of radiation.

Well, since Greenpeace had a go at exploiting fear of mutation a few days ago, we guess Tucker’s on to something we thought became the province of a cartoon a long time ago.

We like this one:

2. Long half-lives make radioactive materials dangerous.

Tucker makes a somewhat counterintuitive but perfectly logical point here:

There seems to be something intrinsically evil about anything that persists for so long. But a long half-life doesn't necessarily make a substance dangerous.

And an example:

A useful, radioactive and harmless part of every person, Carbon 14 has a half-life of 5,730 years. Conversely, some short-lived isotopes can be extremely dangerous. Nitrogen 16, which is produced in operating nuclear reactors, emits very high-energy radiation despite its half-life of just 7.1 seconds.

He doesn’t overstate the case, but it’s an interesting one to make – very culturally astute.

Another good article.

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And an editorial from the Fredericksburg (Maryland) Free Lance-Star uses TMI to get to this point:

Achieving energy independence, moderating climate change, and stimulating economic growth are three clear Obama goals. All would benefit from a renewed effort to embrace nuclear power as an alternative energy source. Yet that focus is fuzzed: We're still stuck in 1979, when an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pa., frightened the nation back into the nuclear Dark Ages.

We agree. We never thought we’d appreciate an anniversary of the TMI accident - color us surprised.

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We ran into this poem about TMI, called Tar, by C.K. Williams. Here’s a bit of it:

I remember the president in his absurd protective booties, looking absolutely unafraid, the fool.

I remember a woman on the front page glaring across the misty Susquehanna at those looming stacks.

But, more vividly, the men, silvered with glitter from the shingles, clinging like starlings beneath the eaves.

That last stanza hints at his title metaphor. Read the whole thing for an intensely personal view of that day in 1979. And then marvel at how far attitudes can move.

Yes, there it is, after you cross the misty Susquehanna.

5 comments:

Bill said...

Very odd formatting, with the numbered items tacked on to the end of the preceding paragraphs. Did it look like that in print?

perdajz said...

TMI-2 must be kept in perspective. It should be a great source of pride that many, many Americans were not even born the last time the industry had this mishap, which is a significant "accident" only by the standards of the nuclear power industry. By any objective measure, in relation to other industrial accidents and the public health hazards we face every day without thinking, it was a total non-event.

I mean in the past 30 years, how many lives have been cut short by burning coal, just in the U.S.? 100,000 certainly. A million? Probably.

The 30th anniversary of TMI-2 should be a time to reflect on the industry's stellar performance over the last decade, the countless lives nuclear power has improved and lengthened, and the inevitable rebirth to come.

Joffan said...

Todd Tucker is perhaps bold in tackling myths but I often feel that nuclear power is damned with such faint praise. More especially when its would-be defenders quote at length from Greenpeace.

For example, was the TMI meltdown incident a setback to the nuclear power industry, or was it a major contributor to the current superb safety record? Was it an instance of something "bad" happening, or was an excellent example of a threat initiator that was contained?

Even though he makes a genuine attempt, I think Todd has not quite grasped the idea that long-half-life material is the same as low-activity material. Low-energy is a slightly different beast; but he only steps into that subject by accident.

You're right the Todd is stretching to find 5 points; but I think it's most obvious when he separates point 3: "Nuclear power is bad for the environment" from point 4: "Nuclear power is unnatural" . Both are simple emotional statements with no backup; "bad" and "unnatural" are equal in this regard. Interestingly he doesn't mention terrorists, which has been a staple anti subject for a little while now.

The response of the nuclear power industry to issues like waste storage puts me in mind of an idiot knight errant, who is given impossible quests by the lady of his dreams and returns after completing them to find that she really wasn't interested in the first place, but was trying to get rid of him. Some people are not worth trying to satisfy.

Robert Synnott said...

"Nuclear power is unnatural" - Besides being ambiguously true (you could call things like the sun and Oklo natural nuclear power), this one is a bit weird; there is nothing particularly natural about a photovoltaic cell, or, for that matter, a steam turbine.

gunter said...

Greetings,

Funny how so little of this speaks to the TMI accident itself.

Jules Feiffer put it most succienctly in his TMI cartoon of the cooling tower puffing out "They Lied." You can probably still find the button on EBay.

But one of the biggest lies still being repeated to date about the accident is that "Containment never failed."

When the facts are laid out on the table, for all to see, they show that the TMI containment in fact did fail.

TMI documents obtained through the federal lawsuit show the containment under relatively slight pressure over time after the partial melt and then a dramatic pressure spike---the hydrogen explosion, which shook the control room. The containment pressure reading chart shows containment pressure fall well below the psi rating prior to the explosion. TMI readout documents from several radiation monitors around the outside annulus go off scale right around the same time.

I find it remarkably disingenuous to call TMI a success story when out of all the many revelations to surface with the accident, TMI most dramatically demonstrates how quickly you can turn a multi-billion dollar investment into a multi-billion dollar liability because of mechanical failure and human error. Two things you can't reliably model with PRA with any confidence particularly when yahoos like FirstEnergy get caught pushing capacity factors over safety inspections at Davis-Besse.