Thirty-five years after the world’s first nuclear-power scare, the nuclear industry hasn’t learned the most basic lesson from Three Mile Island: Get accurate information to the public in a timely manner.
Before Fukushima and before Chernobyl, the world got its first nuclear-power scare – the one at Three Mile Island 35 years ago Saturday that is indelibly etched in global consciousness and the one that remains an impediment to a nuclear renaissance.
On March 28, 1979, the alarm began – and in some corners, it has never ceased.
Around 4 a.m., a valve malfunctioned and Unit 2 suffered a loss of primary coolant, which caused a partial core meltdown. By 7 a.m., Harrisburg, just a few miles upriver, and the surrounding Pennsylvania countryside were awaking to a panic about a “hydrogen bubble” that could explode.
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For five frightful days, area residents were kept on edge as the facility’s owner, metropolitan edison, made reassuring comments only to backtrack later with more dire news. Areas as far as 300 miles away from Harrisburg were advised they might need to evacuate. Even Pennsylvania’s governor complained that he was unable to get answers.
“People in central Pennsylvania were frightened – appropriately so, partly because the situation looked genuinely alarming and partly because the information coming out of MetEd was so contradictory,” says Peter Sandman, a New York-based expert on crisis management who covered the crisis for the Columbia Journalism Review.
The reality is that hydrogen in the core could not explode; rather, it would safely combine with oxygen. And while radiation was released from the plant, the public was not endangered – all confirmed after endless environmental investigations and legal challenges. Despite the melting of about one-third of the fuel core, the reactor vessel contained the damage.
Surprisingly, the nuclear industry worldwide has not learned the most basic lesson of Three Mile Island – to get accurate information to the public in a timely manner. the Soviet Union’s inherent secrecy prevented disclosure in the Chernobyl disaster. Japan’s TEPCO failed in the Fukushima crisis. “TEPCO mishandled communications in ways reminiscent of Three Mile Island,” Mr. Sandman says.
Even in the US, secrecy continues to undermine the industry’s credibility. This past June, when Southern California Edison announced it would shutter its San Onofre Generating Station because of a small radiation leak, the utility maintained that it only learned of the seepage in 2012 during routine maintenance.
But letters subsequently surfaced that proved that the nuclear operator had been expressing concerns to its vendor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, over uncommon vibrations and the possibility of radiation leaks since 2004. That helped erode the utility’s credibility with the public and the regulators, prompting the utility to close the plant and prepare it for decommissioning.
Related article: State marks 35th anniversary of Three Mile Island via ydr.com
Meanwhile, an anti-nuclear power group called No Nukes Pennsylvania is planning to hold its 32nd vigil outside TMI’s north gate starting at 3:15 a.m. today.