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John Daly

John Daly

Dr. John C.K. Daly is the chief analyst for Oilprice.com, Dr. Daly received his Ph.D. in 1986 from the School of Slavonic and East European…

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Three Mile Island NPP in the News Yet Again - but Nothing to Worry About

Three Mile Island NPP in the News Yet Again - but Nothing to Worry About

On 20 September the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant experienced an automatic shutdown at 2:20 p.m.

According to TMI NPP spokesman Ralph DeSantis, "There's absolutely no danger whatsoever to the public health and safety. We have design features in the plant that when something unusual occurs in the plant, the plant would automatically shut down and that's what happened today."

The “incident” follows a TMI NPP shutdown on 22 August, when the facility closed automatically as workers were in the process of manually shutting it down to replace a heating element. Further soothing the public, DeSantis observed then, "It's certainly not a common occurrence, but automatic shutdowns do happen in the nuclear industry."

Further allaying public fears on the most recent incident Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Neil Sheehan told journalists, “This appears to be a fairly straightforward shutdown. Every indication we’re getting is the reactor safety systems are performing the way they are designed.”

The scrammed TMI 825-megawatt pressurized water reactor, about 10 miles outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has been in service since 1974 and can power about 800,000 homes. TMI currently contains four reactors, and the Unit 2 reactor has been shut down since the 1979 partial meltdown.

Local residents are more ambivalent. During the shutdown, steam was released into the atmosphere, creating a loud noise heard by nearby residents. Michael Males was walking into the Didi & Smiling John's barber shop in York when he heard the noise, telling reporters, "It sounded like the last few seconds of a train coming to a complete halt. It was just a very unnatural sound."

On 28 March 1979, America experienced a partial meltdown of the reactor core at the TMI NPP. More than 100,000 local residents, mostly children and pregnant women, fled the area after several water-coolant pumps failed on the TMI-2 reactor, which, even though it shut itself down eight seconds later, its core temperature continued to rise because valves controlling the emergency cooling water were stuck closed.

When 16 hours the core was flooded and its temperature decreased, half of the core had melted, and part of it had disintegrated. It took years of investigation before scientists determined that a meltdown of the TMI-2 reactor occurred, which had only been in operation for 90 days when the accident happened. The TMI-2 reactor was eventually entombed in concrete and TMI-1 was restarted in 1986.

The U.S. nuclear power industry, with billions of dollars at stake, is fighting tooth and nail not only to preserve its patrimony, but expand it. But it has two weaknesses that no amount of PR flacking can conceal.

The first is the issue of nuclear waste disposal.

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The second is the fact that America’s NPPs are aging. U.S. NPPs are currently licensed for 40 years – but on 22 October 2009, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted the TMI Unit 1 a 20 year extension.

America’s NPPs are aging, and many are approaching the end of their 40-year NRC licenses.
What to do?

Apply for a 20-year extension.

But, as U.S. NPP technology ages, infrastructure problems, pumping mechanisms in particular, have started to appear across the nation over the past several years.
Consider TMI’s problems in light of the following.

18 March 2011 – California’s Diablo Canyon NPP emergency cooling system failure went unnoticed.

May 2011 – “Scientific American” headline – “Many U.S. Nuclear Plants Ill-Prepared to Handle Simultaneous Threats.”

9 June 2011 - “Electrical Fire Knocks Out Spent Fuel Cooling at Nebraska Nuke Plant( Fort Calhoun)”

On 28 June 2011 a banner headline in New Jersey proclaimed, “Salem Unit 2 nuclear reactor shuts down after cooling pump failure.” 

26 June 2012 – “There's no word when the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant will return to full power after the failure of a pump that controls the flow of cooling water to the reactor.”

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Note that all these reports are from the local press. From the above, it is obvious that American NPPs aging technology problems are appearing more and more in their cooling systems. Sooner or later, A U.S. NPP is unlikely to dodge the problem of aging technology, with all the consequences it will entail.

But the final word on civilian nuclear power was expressed by the late Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, known as the "father of the U.S. nuclear navy," who shepherded the U.S. Navy into the nuclear age, attracting the best and the brightest (including a future president, Jimmy Carter) around him to advance nuclear propulsion of such a quality engineering level that the Navy has had a perfect safety record, a legacy of Rickover's 63 year career. Despite his accomplishments Rickover remained doubtful about nuclear power, delivering "On the hazards of nuclear power. Testimony to Congress" on 28 January 1982. His insights are worth quoting in detail.

"I'll be philosophical. Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn't have any life -- fish or anything. Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet--and probably in the entire system--reduced and made it possible for some form of life to begin... Now when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible... Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has a certain half-life, in some cases for billions of years. I think the human race is going to wreck itself, and it is important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it... I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation. Then you might ask me why do I have nuclear powered ships. That is a necessary evil. I would sink them all. Have I given you an answer to your question?"

Something to think about as TMI’s latest minor “incidents” are spun into PR oblivion. According to the “York Daily Record/York Sunday News,” TMI is now back online.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Mel Tisdale on September 26 2012 said:
    It's a 'dog bites man' story. When a NPP problem falls into the 'man bites dog' category, it will be of interest. There is no need for concern until 'man bites dog' stories becomes commonplace.

    The important part of the report is not the emphasised problem, it is the implied message behind the licencing arrangements is that America, indeed the human species, needs to develop new nuclear power facilities with up-to-date safety features.

    Small modular thorium fueled reactors look promising, but other new technologies exist and we need to have a mix, in the short term at least, so that long-term decisions can be taken based on actual running experience.

    One thing we cannot have is abandonment of nuclear power generation, no matter how loud the Greens wave their hands in despair.

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