The near-catastrophic breakdown at the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, Pa., happened five years ago, but North America’s worst commercial nuclear power accident continues to generate controversy. The cleanup of Three Mile Island’s crippled Unit 2 reactor has already cost $400 million, and authorities expect that figure to reach $1 billion by the time it is finished. Although the accident did not damage the adjacent Unit 1 reactor, federal authorities ordered it closed after the accident. Now the shutdown threatens the future of the plant’s operator, General Public Utilities (GPU). Charges of mismanagement and improper procedures at the plant have touched off a series of investigations. And emotional battles continue to rage over what the long-term health risks may be to 600,000 people in five counties surrounding the island who may have been exposed to the radiation.
At first, the March 28, 1979, accident appeared to be relatively minor. But because the plant’s operators did not understand what was happening inside the giant reactor building, the problem rapidly became more serious. The core of the Unit 2 reactor was overheating— with temperatures as high as 2,200 °C, 1,890 degrees above the operating temperature of 310 °C. A report by Washington’s Nuclear Regulatory Commis-
sion (NRC) said that in another 30 minutes temperatures could have reached 2,800° C, the point at which a meltdown—when the fuel melts through the reactor vessel, drops to the floor of the reactor building and penetrates it, causing large amounts of radiation to escape—could have occurred. As it was, according to GPU officials, radiation that penetrated the atmosphere along with vented steam exposed people in the area to 6V2 millirems of radiation over and above the average yearly exposure of 100 millirems. And about one million gallons of contaminated water flooded the basement of the Unit 2 building.
The difficulties of cleaning up Unit 2 remain enormous. So far, workers have removed and decontaminated the water but they have yet to undertake the more difficult task of lifting the 175-ton cap off the reactor and removing destroyed fuel and radioactive debris. Lake Barrett, deputy director of the NRC’s on-site cleanup project, says that the material must be removed because an island site is not a suitable repository for storing substances that are “going to be hazardous
for thousands of years.” Financing the operation presents even greater difficulties than the laborious task of cleaning up. Most of the $400 million spent so far on the cleanup has come from GPU’s property insurance. But that is expected to run out by the end of this year, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars of work left to do. To date, other nuclear companies have balked at contributing to the cost of the cleanup, although the various levels of government are providing financial assistance.
While the damage to the Unit 2 reactor was so severe that it is not expected to operate again, considerable controversy has developed over the fate of Unit 1, which had been temporarily shut down for refuelling before the accident. Then the authorities ordered it closed. Now GPU claims that it is losing about $180 million a year by not operating the undamaged Unit 1, on which it has spent about $100 million in additional safety features. Since the 1979 shutdown GPU has pressed the NRC to approve the restart of Unit 1—a decision that the NRC has repeatedly delayed.
Much of the NRC’s reluctance stems from the public opposition to restarting the reactor. In May, 1982, Three Mile Island area residents, many of whom had to leave their homes and stay away for several days at the time of the accident, voted 2 to 1 in a public referendum against restarting Unit 1. The residents are backed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based body of scientists who argue that major problems remain at Unit 1. Said Robert Pollard, who was a nuclear safety engineer at the NRC before joining the Union of Concerned Scientists: “There is no technical basis for concluding that it is safe to run.”
The growing number of critics also accuse GPU of
inept management. They point to the criminal charges that the department of justice laid last November against Metropolitan Edison, the GPU subsidiary operating Three Mile Island at the time of the accident. The indictment alleged that Metropolitan Edison “engaged in a pattern of criminal conduct” in attempting to conceal data from the NRC about the leakage rate from the reactor’s primary cooling system. It also charged that the company falsified reports on safety tests for at least five months before the accident. For its part, Metropolitan Edison has filed a plea of not guilty.
While the controversy over restarting Unit 1 continues, the most contentious issue is the long-term health problems that may afflict those exposed to radiation during the accident. The NRC’s Barrett says monitors at Three Mile Island showed that the amount of radiation that escaped into the environment was small—that individuals in the neighboring area would have been subjected to no more radiation than the equivalent of two chest X-rays. The presidential commission that former president Jimmy Carter appointed to investigate the accident reached similar conclusions. Its October, 1979, report stated the health risks were negligible. But many scientists question the accuracy and adequacy of Three Mile Island’s monitors. Dr. Carl Johnson of Denver’s Medical Care and Research Foundation, for one, contends that the company’s monitors measured only gamma radiation and not alpha radiation, which is 20 times more harmful to humans.
Despite repeated assurances from government and industry officials that the radiation leaks were minimal, many of those exposed remain convinced that they will suffer long-term health problems as a result of their exposure to the radiation. They feel that they deserve compensation for the trauma they suffered after the accident, which ranged from the fear of illness and death to marriage breakdowns. In a 1981 class action suit, a group of several hundred residents and businesses won $25 million from GPU for evacuation expenses and loss of income. With the outcome of that action, it is certain that the fallout from the accident, which cast a shadow over the future of the nuclear power industry, will continue. Many residents remain angry because they believe that both the government and industry officials have consistently downplayed the seriousness of the accident. Said one area resident, John Kovalic, a 64-year-old retired supervisor at a U.S. Air Force aircraft plant: “If we wait another 100 years, they will tell us an accident never happened.”
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