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If we haven’t recovered by now, we never will. A special report.
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On the other hand, the catastrophic situation imagined in The China Syndrome never happened. Supposedly once the fuel assembly had melted, it would sink to the bottom of the steel reactor vessel and then keep going.It would melt through concrete containment and on down into the earth. As the actor-scientist explained to Jane Fonda after she witnesses a near-meltdown in The China Syndrome:
If the core is exposed for whatever reason, the fuel heats beyond core heat tolerance, in a matter of minutes, nothing can stop it and it melts right down through the bottom of the plant, theoretically to China. But of course as soon as it hits groundwater, it blasts into the atmosphere and sends out clouds of radioactivity. The number of people killed would depend on which way the wind is blowing, rendering an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable, not to mention the cancers that would show up later. I may be wrong but I would say you’re lucky to be alive. For that matter, I think we could say the same for the rest of Southern California.
(The irony of the Pennsylvania reference was not lost on anyone at the time.)
But of course it didn’t happen — nor did it ever make much sense in the first place. At Three Mile Island 60 percent of the core melted and dropped to the bottom of the reactor vessel, yet its heat wasn’t even enough to penetrate the chromium lining of the reactor vessel, which has a lower melting point than steel.
But suppose by some wild and wacky happenstance the core did manage to melt through the steel and the concrete containment vessel and begin its journey to the center of the earth. Would it cause the steam explosion that would wipe out Pennsylvania?
A steam explosion occurs when you drop a superheated object into a vat of water. The water evaporates so quickly it acts as an explosion. As Bernard Cohen had long pointed out, however, a molten core making its way to China would not hit groundwater with anything near the same impact. At best it would sink a few yards per day. That would mean it might boil some groundwater, but this water would follow the core’s tunnel right back into the containment structure. The result would be a geothermal site, where the earth’s radioactive heat meets groundwater and sends steam shooting into the air. The China Syndrome was never anything but a cinematic fantasy.
Three Mile Island was an industrial accident. It ruined the reactor, caused a billion dollars worth of damage and nearly bankrupted the utility. What made it unusual for an industrial accident is that no one was hurt. The radioactive release — caused when the seals on a steam overflow tank failed — was minuscule. Exhaustive studies of the area have never found any health effects on the surrounding population. What Three Mile Island proved is that the worst-case scenario for a nuclear accident was far less than anyone realize.
The culture, rather than the technology, caused the accident. Within a year of Hiroshima, the federal government claimed a monopoly on all nuclear technology. The Atomic Energy Commission took control of research and reactor construction, while the utilities were not allowed to participate. After President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” program, however, the AEC began civilian development. General, Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox started building reactors, although the AEC kept a tight rein on the technology.
When combined with the whims of state utility commissions, the results were a collection of one-of-a-kind reactors built around the country with very little in common. Each nuclear plant was an island unto itself. As Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who grew up with the ill-fated Trojan Reactor near Portland, once put it, “The manufacturers used to leave a note on the utility’s doorstep saying, ‘Congratulations, you are the owner of a new nuclear plant.’” The utilities communicated very little and shred no information. At Three Mile Island, the operating crew spent four hours per yearreviewing what was happening at other reactors.
A year after Three Mile Island, Reason published a brilliant article by Adam Reed explaining “Who Caused Three Mile Island.” Reed noted that the AEC’s culture of secrecy had kept nuclear technology completely isolated from a whole generation of engineering psychology that had evolved since 1945. As Reed wrote:
In the early 1950s, research established that about 80 percent of all industrial accidents were due, not to defects or malfunctions in industrial equipment, but to error and confusion on the part of human beings operating it.… Before the end of the '50s…insurance company safety consultants were bringing the new discipline of engineering psychology to bear on the design of industrial plant equipment.… By 1965, hardly any new equipment could be put into operation unless it conformed to the standards for safe human factors designed established by Underwriters Laboratory.… By 1970 no new design for a toaster or blender at General Electric could get off the drawing board without being examined by an expert in human factors. Yet the same company was designing, manufacturing, and delivering nuclear reactors that had never been seen, much less examined by an engineering psychologist.… It was only after the loss of the Three Mile Island plant in 1979 that engineering psychologists asked what the hell was going on in nuclear power plant control rooms. What they saw made them shiver.
One of the major advances of industrial psychology had been making certain that control devices were clearly marked and differentiated, ideally requiring the operator to perform an act similar to what was being put into effect. A lever that moved the control rods up or down, for example, should move up or down itself in identical fashion.
What the engineers instead discovered in nuclear operating rooms was a sea of identical light and switches completely unrelated to their operating functions. Nor was there any hierarch of importance. As Samuel Walker wrote in Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Accident in Historical Perspective:
Within a few seconds after the accident began, the plant’s alarm systems, including a loud horn and more than a hundred flashing lights on the control panels, announced the loss of feed-water in the secondary loop, the turbine trip, the reactor trip, and other abnormal events. But they offered little guidance about the cause of those occurrences and did not differentiate between trivial and vital problems.
In several reactors, lights and gauges indicating important information were so high up on the control panel that operators needed a ladder to see them. In one, two key switches that had to be thrown simultaneously were so far apart that it took two operators to perform the task. In another example that became infamous, the control rods were moved up or down by two identical, unmarked levers sitting side-by-side. The operators had so much trouble differentiating them that they eventually attached two different beer cans in order to remember which was which. At Three Mile Island, one crucial error occurred because a maintenance tag obscured a light warning of a serious malfunction.
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