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If we haven’t recovered by now, we never will. A special report.
On March 28, 1979, a minor valve failed in the cooling loop of a power plant on a sand bar in the middle of the Susquehanna River and the world became familiar with the name “Three Mile Island.”
The country’s first major nuclear accident was perhaps the greatest psychodrama of the era. For almost a week the world stood still and focused on Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Reporters clamored into the area by the busload, one swearing he saw radiation dripping down the side of the reactor building like water. TV cameras remained riveted on the menacing cooling towers hovering over the rural landscape. The world held its breath while puzzled technicians wrestled with the mysterious technology, trying to figure out whether an elusive hydrogen bubble could expand into a nuclear holocaust.
Only a year before Canadian scientist Herbert Inhaber had issued a report claiming, through elaborate fault-tree analysis, that the chances of being killed in a nuclear accident were “less than the chances of being struck by a meteorite.” (One of his fiercest critics was a young Berkeley physics professor named John Holdren, who has just been appointed Science Advisor to the President by Barack Obama.) Now it seemed we had already overstepped the boundaries of Dr. Inhaber’s predictions. In a crowning irony, only three weeks before The China Syndrome, a Jane Fonda movie depicting a nuclear accident, had opened in theaters around the country. Harper’s droll cartoonist David Suter would shortly mock Inhaber’s style in the following feature:
We think the chance of THAT [i.e., a complete meltdown] is nearly infinitesimal, about one in 10[to the 4th] reactor-years of operation, or roughly the same as, say, the likelihood that a feature-length movie describing a reactor accident should open in New York just as a similar accident actually happens in a neighboring state.
So thirty years later, at a moment when the industry is all abuzz with talk of a “nuclear renaissance,” what can we say about Three Mile Island, the lessons learned, and the concerns that remain? The following points, at least, have become clear:
1) Nuclear accidents can happen, but the consequences are much less than generally imagined.
2) The Three Mile Island accident was very much a part of the regulatory regime in which nuclear power had been developed. It had less to do with the technology.
3) The regimen under which nuclear plants operate today has improved immeasurably. The safety communications among reactor owners, for one, is orders of magnitude better than it was in the 1970s. This is both the result of industry efforts and the rise of merchant energy companies that now own and operate the majority of reactors.
4) In terms of overall environmental impact, nuclear power is undoubtedly the cleanest and safest form of electrical generation we have today. However, the failure to build new nuclear plants and the continuing operation of a few aging reactors creates the possibility that another Three Mile Island-type accident could occur.
Let’s look at these one at a time:
Nuclear accidents can happen. A nuclear reactor cannot explodelike an atomic bomb. This has always been known by experts but little understood by the public. (During Three Mile Island, Herblock of the Washington Post drew a cartoon of a mushroom cloud rising out of the cooling tower.) The reason an explosion cannot occur is that the concentration of fissionable material in a reactor is nowhere near the necessary critical mass.
There are two isotopes of uranium, U-235 and U-238, only one of which (U-235) can split it two, giving an energy release. U-235 makes up only 0.7 percent of the natural ore. In order to get to “reactor grade,” the isotopes must be separated — a very difficult process — and the ore “enriched” up to 3-4 percent U-235. (Iran has been trying to do this for year.)
In order to make a bomb, the uranium must be enriched up to — can you guess? — 90 percentU-235. At that point, two portions of a critical mass must be fired together at the speed of a cannon, merging in less than 0.00001 seconds so that the initial release of energy does not blow the mass apart. A nuclear reactor is not, nor never has been, nor never will be, a bomb.
If a reactor cannot explode, however, it can overheat. This is called a “meltdown.” There is an important safety factor, however. There cannot be a runawayreactor because of an important fail-safe mechanism in all commercial plants. The water that bathes a reactor core serves two purposes — a coolant and a “moderator,” slowing down the neutrons so they can split other atoms. Without the moderator, the reaction cannot continue. If a reactor suffers a “loss of coolant,” however, it also loses the moderator,which means the reaction stops. All that is left is the “decay heat,” which will raise temperatures to melt the fuel rods but not penetrate the reactor vessel of the containment structure.
This fail-safe system did notexist as Chernobyl, which used graphite (carbon) as the moderator. When the Chernobyl core lost its water coolant, the reactor kept reacting. Moreover, carbon burns.The result was a runaway reactor that fired the carbon moderator and spewed radioactive debris all over the world. (As one last touch, the Soviets had failed to build a containment structure around the reactor.) Such an accident can never happen in an American reactor.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online