Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Three Mile Island
Three Mile Island is the location of a nuclear power station which on March 28, 1979, suffered a partial core meltdown. The Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station sits on the island in the Susquehanna River in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg, of area 3.29 km≤ (814 acres).
No identifiable injuries due to radiation occurred (although a government report by L. Battist et. al. stated that "the projected number of excess fatal cancers due to the accident ... is approximately one."). It was, however, a serious economic and public relations disaster. It also furthered a serious decline in the public popularity of nuclear power. By coincidence, the event occurred just days after the release of the movie The China Syndrome, which portrayed a similar, yet fictional, incident.
Three Mile Island nuclear accident
The plant's main feedwater pumps in the secondary non-nuclear cooling system failed at about 4:00 a.m. on March 28, 1979. This failure was due to either a mechanical or electrical failure in the condensate system and caused a reduction in feedwater flow which prevented the steam generators from removing heat. First the turbine, then the nuclear reactor automatically shut down. Immediately, the pressure in the primary system (the nuclear portion of the plant) began to increase. In order to prevent that pressure from becoming excessive, the pressurizer relief valve (a valve located at the top of the pressurizer) opened. The valve should have closed when the pressure decreased by a certain amount, but it did not. The only signals available to the operators showed the valve as being closed, but in fact only the signal to close the valve was sent, the system did not check that the valve was actually closed. The "positive feedback" lamp in the control room indicating the true position of the valve (a Pressure Operated Relief Valve, or PORV) was eliminated in original construction to save time and has been backfit to all other plants. As a result of this error in the design this stuck-open valve caused the pressure to continue to decrease in the system.
It should be noted that the operators and emergency operating procedures (EOP's) did not recognize the accident as a classic LOCA (Loss of Coolant Accident) since they had no dependable instrumentation to indicate the loss of primary water or non-ambiguous reactor level indication.
Meanwhile, another problem appeared elsewhere in the plant. The emergency feedwater system (backup to main feedwater) was tested 42 hours prior to the accident. As part of the test, a valve is closed and then reopened at the end of the test. But this time, through either an administrative or human error, the valve was not reopened — preventing the emergency feedwater system from functioning. The valve was discovered closed about eight minutes into the accident. Once it was reopened, the emergency feedwater system began to work correctly, allowing cooling water to flow into the steam generators.
As the system pressure in the primary system continued to decrease, voids (areas where no water is present) began to form in portions of the system other than the pressurizer. Because of these voids, the water in the system was redistributed and the pressurizer became full of water. The level indicator, which tells the operator the amount of coolant capable of heat removal, incorrectly indicated the system was full of water. Thus, the operator stopped adding water. He was unaware that, because of the stuck valve, the indicator could, and in this instance did, provide false readings.
After almost eighty minutes of slow temperature rise the primary loop pumps began to shudder as steam rather than water began to pass through them. The pumps were shut down, and it was believed that natural circulation would continue the water movement. Steam in the system locked the primary loop, and as the water stopped circulating it was converted to steam in increasing amounts. After around 130 minutes since the first malfunction, the top of the reactor core was exposed and the heat and steam drove a reaction involving hydrogen and radioactive gases with the zirconium nuclear control rod cladding. The quench tank overfilled, its relief diaphragm ruptured, and radioactive coolant began to leak out into the general containment building. At 6 a.m. there was a shift change in the control room. A new arrival noticed that the temperature in the holding tanks was excessive and used a backup valve to shut off the coolant venting. Around 250,000 US gallons (950 m³) of coolant had already been lost from the primary loop. It was not until 165 minutes after the start of the problem that radiation alarms activated as contaminated water reached detectors, by which time the radiation levels in the primary coolant water were around 300 times expected levels.
It was still not clear to the control room that the primary loop water levels were low and that over half of the core was exposed (LOCA). A group of workers took manual readings from the thermocouples and obtained a sample of primary loop water. Around seven hours into the emergency, new water was pumped into the primary loop. The backup relief valve was opened to reduce pressure. At around nine hours the hydrogen within the reactor building ignited and burned, but this was largely unnoticed. After almost sixteen hours the primary loop pumps were turned back on and the core temperature began to fall. A large part of the core had melted and the system was still dangerously radioactive. Over the next week the steam and hydrogen were removed from the reactor using a recombiner and, more controversially, by venting straight to the atmosphere. It is estimated that 2.5 million curies (about 90 million GBq) of radioactive gas were released by the event.
For a full review of the incident and description of conditions, actions taken (and not taken) and effects on plant equipment and the environment, review the Rogovin Report and the Kemeny Report available at http://americanhistory.si.edu/tmi/tmi12.htm
Three Mile Island has been of interest to human factor engineers as an example of how groups of people react and make decisions under stress. There is general consensus that the accident was exacerbated by incorrect decisions made because the operators were overwhelmed with information, much of it irrelevant, misleading, or incorrect. As a result of the TMI, nuclear reactor operator training has been changed. Before TMI, operator training focused on diagnosing the underlying problem. After TMI, operating training has focused on reacting to the emergency by going through a standardized checklist to ensure that the core is receiving enough coolant. It is noteworthy that the Union of Concerned Scientists, http://www.ucsusa.org/ , called for the shutdown of Three Mile Island and 15 other nuclear power plants two months prior to the meltdown.
In addition to the improved operating training, improvements in quality assurance, engineering, operational surveillance and emergency planning have been instituted. Improvements in control room habitability, "sight lines" to instruments, ambiguous indications and even the placement of "trouble" tags (some tags were covering instrument indications during the accident) have been improved. Improved surveillance of critical systems, structures and components required for cooling the plant and mitigating the escape of radionuclides during an emergency were also implemented. In addition, each nuclear site must have an approved emergency plan which directs the evacuation of the public within a 20 mile Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ) to facilitate rapid notification and evacuation. This plan is rehearsed with federal and local authorities on a periodic basis to ensure that all groups work together quickly and efficiently.
U.S. President Jimmy Carter ordered a full investigation of the TMI incident. According to Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the key figure in the development of nuclear power plants and a close confidant of the president, the original report was so critical of the nuclear power industry's safety lapses that if it had been released, all nuclear plants in the U.S. would probably have been forced to close. Rickover said the final version was more muted, at the command of Jimmy Carter.
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives conducted its own investigation, which focused on the need to improve evacuation procedures. House investigators also visited the Three Mile Island site, including the Control Room. Many of the instruments viewed were marked with "error tags," explaining how the instrument was supposed to work, and how it actually functioned. A member of the investigating committee, State Rep. Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia, said it would be "virtually impossible" for any Control Room operator to keep track of the many variations between the equipment's intended and actual functioning.
There was also the psychological effect on the nation. Before the accident approximately seventy percent of the general public approved of nuclear power. After this accident, support for nuclear power across the country fell to about fifty percent, where it has remained. More concretely, no US nuclear power plant has been authorized to begin construction since 1978. A nuclear building boom spurred by the energy crisis was stopped in its tracks; of 129 plants approved at the time of TMI, just 53 were ever completed, as federal requirements became more stringent and local opposition more strident.
The reactor cleanup started in August 1979 and officially ended in December 1993 at a cost of around US$975 million. From 1985 to 1990 almost 100 tonnes of radioactive fuel were removed from the site. TMI-2 had been online only three months. TMI-1 was restarted in 1985.
The China Syndrome
The accident at the plant occurred a few days after the release of the movie The China Syndrome, which featured Jane Fonda as a newsanchor at a California TV station. In the movie, she was doing a series on nuclear energy and while she and her cameraman are at the plant, an accident almost happens, and she attempts to raise awareness of how unsafe the plant was. During one scene, she was talking with a nuclear safety expert who said that a meltdown could force an area "the size of Pennsylvania" to be evacuated. In another coincidence, the fictional near-accident in the movie also occurred when plant operators misunderstood the amount of water within the core.
Fonda soon afterwards began lobbying against nuclear power, the only actor in the film to do so. In an attempt to counter her efforts, the nuclear physicist Edward Teller ("father of the hydrogen bomb" and long-time government science advisor) himself lobbied in favor of nuclear power, and eventually the 71-year-old scientist suffered a heart attack, which he later blamed on Fonda: "You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous." (see Edward Teller for more information)
- EIA on TMI
- Account of the accident, from the Report of the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island
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