40 Years in the Shadow of Three Mile Island

A 40-year anniversary is usually cause for jubilant celebration, of endearing reflection—unless you are staring down the 40th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident in United States’ history. Shortly after dawn broke over Dauphin County on March 28th, 1979, the mechanisms of what would eventually come to be known as the Three Mile Island disaster began to swirl. While morning migrated across the western Pennsylvania sky there had been silence—operators working, technicians’ eyes roving across display panels, the plant in the practiced motions of normal operations. Then, before most of the surrounding population had even lifted themselves from their beds, proverbial hell broke loose. A cacophony of alarm bells and sirens began screeching across the plant—down corridors, orange strobe lights oscillating through sleepy hallways and control rooms, rattling the startled brains of the only people on hand—four young operators armed with insufficient training and a rapidly deteriorating situation the likes of which they had never faced.

Curiously enough given the end result, the operators performed to the exact letter of their training—the problem was the training itself. The specific type of malady that befell the TMI 2 reactor that morning, a Loss of Coolant Accident (LOCA) and the one specific postulated accident that can breach two of the three safety barriers at a given plant (sealed fuel cladding, reactor core enclosed in the reactor coolant system [RCS], and the umbrella containment building), had not been accounted for in their training. The reason for this grossly negligent omission was the fault of the plant designer—Babcock & Wilcox (B&W). The base zero of the entire TMI disaster was a Pilot Operated Relief Valve (PORV) and the upstream PORV Block Valve, that was remained open after it should have been closed by the block valve. This occurred because the safety functions of the PORV was not taken into account, despite several previous valve failures at other B&W designed plants—this became a whirlwind problem when TMI initiated safety protocol and the PORV was not built for dual functions: normal operations and safety operations. LOCA’s had been incorporated into the designer’s safety analysis report submitted to and approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, but as was horrifically revealed in the harrowing hours of mad, sweat-soaked scramble during that early morning light, the report was not wholly inclusive. NRC requirements dictate that all possible breaches to the RCS must be studied in the safety report, ranging from large double-ended breaks of piping down to the small-sized breaks in which the water coolant system can overcome with increased and maintained production. It was generally assumed that consequences of the large-break were more devastating than smaller breaks and so on down the spectrum—yet right after the point where the report ceased its analysis, the 0.1 sq ft mark, break behavior changed. Yes, small breaks were of less danger than large-scale breaks, but very small breaks reversed the trend and behaved in quick succession like the malice of larger breaks. Smaller breaks were not analyzed at all and because of this Three Mile Island was essentially a ticking time bomb—albeit, a wholly preventable one.

For several days after that morning the nation sat in hallowed fear. Eyes roamed the western Pennsylvania sky for the nasty word hanging silently on all their lips, radiation. The invisible terror. Public support for nuclear energy disintegrated into flames and pitchforks—another nuclear power plant was never built again on U.S. soil. There were no deaths or horrific mutations to the surrounding environment, but the line was drawn and the curse had been cast. Nuclear became entrenched as ugly, dirty word. A harbinger of Armageddon. The idea that the world could be turned inside out in a second sank itself into the American psyche.

Now we have the New Green Deal rattling the death sword for nuclear energy. The industry’s coffin is being eagerly prepared by the new wave of young politicians. Yet ask any sane scientist, or anyone who’s honestly looked into the problem of clean energy, and you’ll get one unified answer: we need nuclear energy to foster a stable future. Energy spins the world and the world is spinning faster day by day.

Otek is spinning with it. Recently launching our pledge to help the nuclear industry evolve and thrive, we recognize the dire need for nuclear I&C rooms to digitize. The financial and feasible challenges of doing so are great, but the Otek technology has the potential to revolution the process. Our New Technology Meters (NTM), our Universal Panel Meter (UPM), and especially our cyber security exempt Solid State Analog Meter (SSAM), are designed specifically to combat NEI 08-09 regulation and the difficulties of efficiently replacing the obsolete analog meters that overpopulate too many of our nuclear power plants.

If you recognize the need to digitize and want to help the nuclear industry meet its gargantuan potential, please visit our website www.otekcorp.com for a complete purview of all our products, including the obsolescence hardened NTM, UPM, and SSAM. Our phones are always open at (520) 748-7900 and our sales team is waiting to assist you at sales@otekcorp.com.

March 28th, 1979. All these long years later—what have they brought us?