I Survived Three Mile Island ... I Think

Twenty-five years ago, on March 28, 1979, I lived 50 miles downwind of Three Mile Island, and I survived the single worst nuclear accident ever to occur in this country. At least, I think I survived it. Today, I live about 10 miles downwind from the Duane Arnold nuclear power plant in Palo, Iowa. On certain days, when the wind is just right, I look out my home office window and see a mushroom cloud (from the cooling towers) over the plant. After the TMI experience, it's a little unnerving.


It's disturbing because I don't trust the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) any more. First, NRC is not doing its job. A Google search will turn up plenty of reports and complaints that say the NRC is incompetent, understaffed, and overworked. They can't cut it any more.


Second, the NRC seems to have an analog control mindset from the 1960s that does not allow modern digital controls. It doesn't even allow plants to upgrade simple instrumentation, such as chart recorders.


I wrote about all this three years ago ("Do We Need More Nukes?" Control Report, Feb. 2001). I mentioned that when I toured the Limerick nuclear power station under construction in Limerick, Pa., in the early 1980s, I saw single-loop Bailey controllers circa 1968 being installed in the control room. "Why are you using such ancient technology?" I asked. The answer was: "Because these were approved by NRC when the plant was designed, and we can't change them."


Many nuclear plants are still running those ancient controls and prehistoric instrumentation. That's scary. The Environmental News Network reported on March 26, 2004, "with a dearth of new building, aging nuclear plants pose a risk," said Jim Riccio, an antinuclear advocate at Greenpeace. "After Three Mile Island, the pendulum definitely swung in the direction of safety," he said. "In the last 25 years, it has swung in the other direction. They're running these plants to the verge of breakdown."


 "Put some of the readers of CONTROL in the NRC, and we'd get the most modern, sophisticated, and safest nuclear plants in the world."


Anti-nuclear and environmental groups are all a-flutter over a near catastrophe in 2002. NRC inspectors found massive corrosion at a Ohio nuclear plant owned by FirstEnergy Corp. Leaking boric acid used as a coolant ate a football-sized hole in the steel outer hull protecting the plant's reactor core. Critics say the NRC should have found this flaw earlier.


While our nuclear infrastructure is crumbling, Europe and third-world countries are building nuclear power plants at a record pace. France has 58 plants, second only to the U.S., and relies on nuclear energy for 75% of its power. China plans to quadruple its nuclear power capacity to more than 32,000 MW between 2005 and 2020 by building two new plants a year. Its need for power is growing exponentially, as U.S. companies continue to build manufacturing plants in China. Nukes are also being built in India, South Korea, and even in Europe, in spite of virulent anti-nuke activity from the Green party.


It's easier for Europeans and third world countries to build nukes than it is for us, because they don't have the NRC thwarting every advance in controls, frustrating sensor and equipment suppliers, and bungling every assignment.


The U.S. government is facing a massive brain drain, where thousands of key experts will be retiring from the military and NASA. Let's hope the NRC is suffering the same brain drain, and all the incompetent old codgers and analog control advocates retire quickly. Maybe we can get some new blood into the NRC and drag the nuclear power industry into the 21st Century of digital controls and modern instrumentation.


Put some of the readers of CONTROL in the NRC, and we'd get the most modern, sophisticated, and safest nuclear plants in the world.


We may have to do this very soon. We aren't building any new nukes in the U.S., so we have to keep our old plants  running reliably. That is going to require modern control systems and instrumentation. Although our nuclear power plants are crumbling, at least they can operate safely until they die. But first, we have to melt down and scram the NRC. I don't want that mushroom cloud from the Palo nuclear plant to be the real thing some day.

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