Three Mile Island (book)

"Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective" is a scholarly history of the Three Mile Island accident, written by J. Samuel Walker and published in 2004. Walker is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's historian and his book is the first detailed historical analysis since the accident. "Three Mile Island" received mainly favorable reviews.

The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania was "the single most important event in the fifty-year history of nuclear power regulation in the United States", according to Walker. Many commentators have seen the event as a turning point for the nuclear power industry in the United States.Bernero, Robert M. [http://www.americanscientist.org/template/BookReviewTypeDetail/assetid/37199?&print=yes March Madness (Book review)] "American Scientist", November–December 2004. Retrieved February 1, 2008.]

Author

"Three Mile Island" is J. Samuel Walker's fourth book as the official historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In the book's preface, Walker assures readers that he had complete independence in its authorship—that the NRC placed no restrictions on what could be said.Walker, J. Samuel (2004). [http://books.google.com/books?id=tf0AfoynG-EC "Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective"] (Berkeley: University of California Press), pp. ix–x. Retrieved February 1, 2008.] However, Walker provides an historical account and does not evaluate the performance of the NRC.

Background and introduction

The Three Mile Island power station is near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in the United States. The accident described in "Three Mile Island" began on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, and ultimately resulted in a partial core meltdown in Unit 2 of the nuclear power plant. Unit 2's pressurized water reactor was of 900 MWe capacity. [World Nuclear Association (1999). [http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf36.html Three Mile Island: 1979] Retrieved February 19, 2008.] The scope and complexity of this reactor accident became clear over the course of five days, as a number of agencies at the local, state and federal levels tried to solve the problem and decide whether the ongoing accident required an emergency evacuation, and to what extent.

The early chapters of "Three Mile Island" provide historical context for the accident, giving a brief overview of the government-supported growth of commercial nuclear power in the 1960s and 1970s. The emerging controversy during that period over the safety of nuclear power is also described. The public were concerned about the risk of nuclear accidents and about routine low-level releases of radioactivity. Walker provides a simplified explanation of the principal safety issues with reactors of the same type as Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI-2).

Analysis

The main part of the book consists of six chapters, one covering each of the five days (Wednesday, March 28, through Sunday, April 1, 1979) of the crisis phase of the accident and another covering its immediate effects. Walker draws on a wide range of sources, but principally on the report of the Kemeny Commission, which President Carter appointed immediately after the disaster, and the Rogovin Report, which resulted from the NRC's own inquiry.

The chain of events that led to the crisis at the TMI plant included several minor equipment failures, but operator errors (to which design flaws contributed) converted those malfunctions into a major accident. The Three Mile Island accident is largely seen as a failure of crisis management.Wellock, Thomas R. [http://www.encyclopedia.com/printable.aspx?id=1G1:158156350 Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective (Book review)] "The Historian", 22 September 2005. Retrieved February 1, 2008.] According to one reviewer of the book:

Reactor operators were not trained to deal with accident conditions, and the NRC had not established effective communication with utilities. Moreover, once the accident occurred, the lines of authority proved to be ill defined. The public received conflicting reports that caused needless panic and evacuations. It was these systemic weaknesses in the regulatory system that allowed gifted people to make the mistakes they did.
About half of the TMI-2 reactor core melted, releasing large amounts of hydrogen gas into the reactor coolant system and into the containment building. Fortunately, the serious damage to the reactor did not result in any deaths, in large part because of the robust design of the plant's systems. The TMI-2 cleanup took 11 years and cost about US$1 billion.

Walker suggests that the TMI accident incited widespread criticism of nuclear power technology, the nuclear industry, and the NRC. Critics faulted the industry and the NRC for their poor performance both before and after the accident. The international attention garnered by the crisis redoubled the determination of, and enhanced the credibility of, the anti-nuclear movement.

Walker reports that studies looking for long-term radiation effects resulting from the accident have reached conflicting conclusions, but it seems that any increase in cancers is slight enough to have occurred by chance.

Conclusions

Walker concludes that the TMI-2 accident left a mixed legacy. It did cause regulatory and operational improvements in industry, but it also increased opposition to nuclear power. In Walker's analysis, neither the critics nor the proponents were completely vindicated. It was shown (as calculated - see WASH-1400) that a nuclear accident was possible. However, the worst-case scenario (colloquially referred to as a "China Syndrome") did not happen.

Critical reception

There have been several published reviews of "Three Mile Island", mostly favorable. John F. Barber from The University of Texas states:

...Walker captures the high human drama surrounding the TMI accident, sets it in the context of the heated debate over nuclear power in the seventies, and analyzes the social, technical, and political issues it raised. His account of the days and events surrounding the TMI accident clear up misconceptions and his discussion of the aftermath provide thoughtful and sober grounds for the continued debate over the role of nuclear power in our contemporary world.Barber, John F. [http://leonardo.info/reviews/jan2005/three_barber.html Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective (Review)] "Leonardo online", 1 December 2004. Retrieved February 1, 2008.]

Thomas Wellock from Central Washington University recommended the book "for all libraries and students of politics, government bureaucracy, and environmental history".

Bernard L. Cohen, from the University of Pittsburgh, criticized the book in terms of the scope and quality of its technical content: "The book contains little technical information, and many of the technical explanations that do appear range from inadequate to misleading to incorrect." [Cohen, Bernard L. [http://www.physicstoday.org/vol-58/iss-2/pdf/vol58no2p63b_64.pdf Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective (Review) (PDF)] "Physics Today", February 2005.]

ee also

*Generation II reactor
*Nuclear safety
*Nuclear safety in the U.S.

Bibliography

* Walker, J. Samuel (2004). "Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective" (Berkeley: University of California Press), ISBN 0520246837, 315 pages.

References

External links

* [http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.pdf Three Mile Island Accident (NRC Facts Sheet)]
* [http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,920196,00.html A Nuclear Nightmare]


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