We here at TT often make light of the outlandish 'emo' [emotive] gloom and doom prophesies of the many erstwhile spokespersons of big-s Science in their attempts to sell failed or highly debatable theories to the public for ideological or political reasons. We focus primarily on the stalwart defenders of Neodarwinian Orthodoxy, but the tendency for groups of like-minded scientists to propagandize in favor of their pet theories and projects as if there were no alternatives – or simple facts – to get in the way, crosses all the disciplinary borders.
This blog is intended to highlight how this propagandizing – a.k.a. "spin" – works in other areas of science, engineering and government, on an issue I am familiar with. It's a bit of a departure from the usual biological focus, but the information herein may serve to promote a little skepticism of "authority" in the perennial science wars that Telic Thoughts so often challenges.
As the new century's propaganda push to re-invest in "clean, safe, too-cheap-to-meter" nuclear energy kicks into high gear, a new PR effort to address issues related to the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island has also taken flight. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology held a 2-day seminar on January 22-23 entitled Three Mile Island – failure of science or spin?
Andrew Kadak, MIT Professor of the practice of nuclear engineering at MIT offered a couple of presentations on the first day assessing four aspects of "failure" at TMI that put the final nail in the coffin of nuclear power development in the United States. These four failures were identified by Kadak as; technical, financial, perceptual and consequential.
The financial and consequential failures are easily enough addressed. No public or private utility in this country has ordered a new nuclear plant since 1978, the year before the TMI meltdown. Despite ever increasing government subsidies that served to offset local costs by shifting them to taxpayers, nukes were never cheap or easy. By the late '70s costs had spiraled out of control (avg. per-unit cost 2+ billion) and regulatory delays made it practically impossible to bring a new plant online in less than 20 years.
TMI's last coffin nail was described by Kadak thusly:
As a result of the Three Mile Island incident, nuclear plant construction was halted throughout the United States, "killing the nuclear industry for 30 years," Kadak said, and many became convinced nuclear energy was unsafe.
…as well as financially untenable and regulatorily unfeasible. Thereby knocking out the third leg of that "clean, safe, too-cheap-to-meter" sales pitch that gave us nuclear power generation in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Before new prototype plants and utility investments can be jump-started by new federal subsidies and engineering designs, it's the lingering technical and perceptual failures TMI brought to light that most need to be addressed. In the MIT press release Kadak addresses specific aspects of these failures, and very predictably gets them totally wrong. His propaganda, misinformation, sleights of mind and bald-faced lies should be addressed.
It's not that the real failures are not well known in nuclear circles, it's that apologists for the industry are still lying about them with a straight face to a generation of students who weren't even born in 1979. Because I served along with many dedicated and knowledgeable health physicists in the initial TMI recovery operation during the weeks following the 1979 accident, I still harbor a large amount of disgust at such outrageous, deadly lies.
The facts about TMI listed below have all been presented along with supporting physical evidence to the NRC and committees of the US Congress (both Senate and House) in sworn testimony. Events and timing are all included in the official Sequence of Events included in the Kemeny Commission findings, Technical Assessment Task Force [TATF] and Health Physics Task Force [HPTF] reports, which afaik are still unclassified and available to the public.
Yet Kadak said, despite ominous newspaper photos of (completely safe) steam being released from the plant's cooling towers, radiation was "contained"–the supreme goal of the design. Could that not be considered a success?
The steam being released from TMI-2's cooling tower in the hours, days and weeks following the accident was contaminated with primary coolant water and the lode of radioactive material released from failed fuel and melting core, to the tune of millions of curies of everything from noble gases to heavy metals.
At 90 seconds into the accident, steam generator B had boiled dry due to the Emergency Feedwater Block Valves [EFBVs] having been tripped closed by water that was sucked into the pneumatic control lines during work on clogged demineralizers – this is what caused the Main Feedwater Valves to fail as well, as both the Main and Emergency cooling systems were operated by the same lines that controlled the demineralizers. These failures initiated the signal to SCRAM the reactor (drop all control rods). This engineering design failure caused the accident at TMI.
It took 8 full minutes for a brave operator to wedge himself into the "physically awkward" position required to manually open the ERBVs in the aux building, which finally allowed cooling water to flow to the empty B and half-empty A steam generators. The design of steam generators has always been prone to weld failures (these components are among the leakiest in nuclear power plants), but in this instance they were superheated by reactor water and steam from despressurization of the primary system, caused by an open pressure relief valve, and runaway fission in the core.
Result: Steam generator B blew its guts out (the A generator sprung lots of leaks but managed to hold somewhat). The Main Steam Dump Valves were forced open due to high pressure, venting directly to the atmosphere outside containment. This event set off the Site Emergency alarms, and all but 5 Navy-trained operators isolated in the control room ran for their lives.
* Steam Generator B was finally isolated at 1 hour 36 minutes into the accident, but the A generator remained online by necessity despite its internal failures, until the plant was finally dismantled.
Physics graduate student Roark Marsh suggested removing the word "colossal" to make the assessment more accurate. But activist James Williamson, a frequent participant in MIT events, would have none of it, saying that not only did systems fail, but plant operators failed to err on the side of caution and call for an evacuation, even if they were unsure of the risk. "Yes, there was inaccurate information, but who cares?" he said.
Now the "activist" panelist is lying. The operators knew what they were up against, as the additional failure nobody wants to talk about was right there in front of their faces on the heads-up display from the moment the initial SCRAM signal was received… Control rod group 8, ringing core central, had failed to fall. This was due to pre-existing fuel failure, which caused excess contamination of the RCS system that managed to clog the demineralizers before the accident. The core was new – it had been purchased at a discount price from Kerr McGee by Met-Ed, seeking to save money. It had twice failed inspection (the fuel pellets were prone to crumble). This caused shoddy welds in the cladding to fail in the central core, which warped the fuel rods beyond tolerance and stopped the gravity-feed control rods from falling at only 25% descent.
Evacuation of the plant itself happened upon declaration of Plant Emergency – something that occurred at 8 minutes in when the evac alarm went off as the emergency steam-dump occurred. When General Emergency was declared shortly thereafter, public evacuation is required. It was never the 5 operators' job to evacuate the island or the public. Failure in this instance falls directly to the politicians whose job it WAS to order evacuation. And they got some interference on that straight from Washington. Assigning this failure to the operators is outrageous – they were busy riding a meltdown.
While experts wrongly concluded that hydrogen in the core would form a dangerous bubble (rather than safely recombine with oxygen), "isn't the lesson to imagine things even worse than they can imagine?" Hutchinson asked.
The hydrogen 'bubble' in the vessel was real, and remained a serious issue for two solid weeks even after convection cooling using the RCS makeup and letdown lines (venting outside containment for nearly 2 months) was established. In fact, hydrolysis was going on in the core at a fantastic rate during the first 16 hours of the epic battle to control the meltdown. Once the operators managed to re-route the RCS away from the B loop (and the Pressurizer Overhead Relief Valve [PORV] attached to it) – thus wresting manual control of the upstream PORV block valve from the Engineered Safeguards system that kept it open – they could repressurize and vent at will to slowly bring the reactor under control despite repeated failures of the RCS primary pumps due to cavitation (air in the lines).
At 16 hours, the normally pressurized (-3psig) containment building atmosphere exploded in what is blandly listed as a "pressure spike" of +30psig. Perhaps a few here can appreciate what that means, given what happens to an airliner that is suddenly depressurized at altitude. Finally, the only piece of design engineering that didn't fail – containment itself. Which had been built to withstand less than half that pressure. No hatches blew either, itself a minor miracle.
I've seen a full-grown male human being get sucked through a 12-inch hatch that blew once in the airlock into containment, breaking every bone in his body and hurling him more than 50 feet through the air on the other side. It's not pretty. +30psig is a monstrous explosion, and containment is a very big space. The hydrogen did not "safely recombine with oxygen." Venting saved the vessel, and every time venting occurred more radiation was released.
But bottom line: No one was killed in the accident and subsequent studies have turned up no conclusive evidence on health problems. Three Mile Island could have been a huge disaster; because of safety protocols, it was not, Kadak concluded. The real hero, he argued, was Gov. Thornburgh, who took the attitude, "I'm not going to do anything until I get the facts."
Alas, political spin wins out yet again. Thornburgh defied DC to order the evacuation of pregnant women and children anyway. Unfortunately, he put them in the Hershey Convention Center, right in the touchdown path of "the plume" (the radiation plume spiraling out of the cooling tower and aux building release stack plus RCS makeup and letdown vents. Stillbirths rose 280% that year. Deformities of human and animal babies that were born were horrific. "Cluster cancers" in the plume path were well documented, wiping out whole families and decimating neighborhoods. Met-Ed and GPU (and subsequent owners) have paid out many millions of dollars over the years to compensate victims in an attempt to prevent lawsuits despite Price-Andersen caps. It was more than 5 years before the milk was drinkable, and then only by dilution.
Thyroid cancers, bone cancers, leukemias, lung and stomach cancers, look up the known effects of radiation and ingested/inhaled contamination and all of them were present. A class action suit in the 1990s had more than 2,000 plaintiffs. It was summarily dismissed for lack of evidence by a judge named Rambo after the government summarily disallowed all the plaintiffs' expert witnesses. The health effects were assigned by political spin-meisters to coal dust left over from the 1950s and '60s in that section of Pennsylvania. I kid you not.
* Years later when humans could finally enter the containment to assess damage by inserting cameras into the core, it was discovered that more than 20 tons of core were MIA. Gone. Disappeared. Nowhere to be found. They called this "The Void at the Center of the Core." Can anyone out there hazard a guess as to where it went? Â§;o)
Those are the lies reported in MIT's happy little press release, which were told along with unknown others in this seminar in support of reinvestment in nuclear power to a new generation. If you've managed to get this far, you can probably tell I have a problem with this historical revisionism all these years later. If we wish to seriously consider reinvestment in nuclear energy, we really ought to address what actually DID happen at TMI in 1979. The new plant designs these liars are selling have no containment structures, because containment structures have been deemed too expensive. Chernobyl didn't have a containment either. Ask some of the dying residents of Ukraine and Northern Europe how much they like that idea.
…I'll have none of it.