Monday, March 28, 2011

Three Mile Island, Happy Anniversary, Learning from History

This is particularly pertinent to revisit, in view of the events unfolding in Japan where the reactor partial meltdowns have been rated significantly worse than the accident at Three Mile Island.  I was struck by the similarity in the official messages to the public.

From the contemporary New York Times article :
Middletown, Pa., Thursday, March 29 -- An accident at a three-month-old nuclear power plant released above-normal levels of radiation into the central Pennsylvania countryside early yesterday.

By last night, officials of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had still not determined the full extent of the radiation danger, but they said the amount of radiation that escaped was no threat to people in the area. Major amounts were released into the building housing the reactor, but workers were not believed to have been endangered.
I was struck by the similarity in the assurances that no one was endangered by radiation from the vented steam.

There is an excellent article on wikipedia that summarizes the partial melt down:

The Three Mile Island accident was a partial core nuclear meltdown in Unit 2 (a pressurized water reactor manufactured by Babcock & Wilcox) of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania near Harrisburg, United States in 1979.

The power plant was owned and operated by General Public Utilities and Metropolitan Edison (Met Ed). It was the most significant accident in the history of the USA commercial nuclear power generating industry, resulting in the release of up to 481 PBq (13 million curies) of radioactive gases, and less than 740 GBq (20 curies) of the particularly dangerous iodine-131.[1]

The accident began at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve (PORV) in the primary system, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors, such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant's user interface. In particular, a hidden indicator light led to an operator manually overriding the automatic emergency cooling system of the reactor because the operator mistakenly believed that there was too much coolant water present in the reactor and causing the steam pressure release.[2] The scope and complexity of the accident became clear over the course of five days, as employees of Met Ed, Pennsylvania state officials, and members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) tried to understand the problem, communicate the situation to the press and local community, decide whether the accident required an emergency evacuation, and ultimately end the crisis. The NRC's authorization of the release of 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste water directly in the Susquehanna River led to a loss of credibility with the press and community.[2]

In the end, the reactor was brought under control, although full details of the accident were not discovered until much later, following extensive investigations by both a presidential commission and the NRC. The Kemeny Commission Report concluded that "there will either be no case of cancer or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. The same conclusion applies to the other possible health effects".[3] Several epidemiological studies in the years since the accident have supported the conclusion that radiation releases from the accident had no perceptible effect on cancer incidence in residents near the plant, though these findings are contested by one team of researchers.[4]
Contrary to this conclusion cited in Wikipedia is this:
Three Mile Island Cancer "Extremely High" Leukemia rates were up by 600 to 700 percent.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- A second look at a landmark study on the 1979 Three Mile Island radiation release has found that people near the nuclear reactor are suffering from extremely high rates of cancer.

The original study, performed by Columbia University, is often cited as evidence that the TMI accident near Harrisburg, Penn. caused no ill effects to the people exposed to the radiation.

But Steve Wing, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has conducted a reevaluation of the Columbia University study, and published his results in the January 1997 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

Using better analytic and statistical techniques, he found that among the 20,000 people who lived near the plant and close to the plume's path, lung cancer and leukemia rates were two or more times higher than what they were near the plant but upwind from the plume. Among those in the most direct path of the plumes, lung cancer incidence went up by 300 to 400 percent, and leukemia rates were up by 600 to 700 percent.

"Several hundred people at the time of the accident reported nausea, vomiting, hair loss and skin rashes, and a number said their pets died or had symptoms of radiation exposure," he said. "We figured that if that were possible, we ought to look at it again. After adjusting for pre-accident cancer incidence, we found a striking increase in cancers downwind from Three Mile Island."

The scientists do not believe smoking and social and economic factors were responsible for the increased cancers found in the downwind sectors. Researchers studied leukemias, childhood cancers, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and Hodgkin's disease. "But their analyses of childhood cancers failed to consider birth cohorts. Therefore the Columbia analyses counted among the exposed many children who were not conceived at the time of the accident, diluting the exposed group," according to an analysis of Wing's research by the Nuclear Information & Resource Service.

But missing and inoperable equipment meant little information about the early radiation release was available. Thus the study didn't take into account the possibility that concentrated packets of radioisotopes hit certain populations.

"If the premise that maximum doses were no higher than average annual background levels is not open to question, then no positive association could be interpreted as evidence in support of the hypothesis that radiation from the accident led to increased cancer rates," Wing said.

In 1994-95, cytogenetic analyses, or cell studies, of individuals near TMI who experienced vomiting, erythema, diarrhea and other symptoms of radiation poisoning at the time of the accident showed genetic damage equivalent with levels of exposure substantially more than the maximum dose used in the Columbia study.

Wing and his colleagues found dose-response relationships between radiation exposure and cancer incidence. The data show that the higher the radiation exposure, the higher the incidence of cancer.

According to the Nuclear Service, Wing divided a 10- mile study area into 69 tracts, "each assigned radiation dose estimates based on monitor readings and atmospheric dispersion models.

"Using various models, Wing et al. adjusted for age, sex, socioeconomic characteristics, preaccident variation in cancer incidence and the medical detection bias so that these factors would not interfere with a true result.

"The routine releases from TMI unit one and their effects on the population were also accounted for by adjustment for baseline cancer rates before the accident," the Nuclear Service said.

"I would be the first to say that our study doesn't prove by itself that there were high-level radiation exposures, but it is part of a body of evidence that is consistent with high exposures," Wing said. "The cancer findings, along with studies of animals, plants and chromosomal damage in Three Mile Island area residents, all point to much higher radiation levels than were previously reported. If you say that there was no high radiation, then you are left with higher cancer rates downwind of the plume that are otherwise unexplainable."

Then we have this from 2009:
Startling Revelations About Three Mile Island (Nuclear) Disaster Raise doubts over nuclear plant safety
by Sue Sturgis

It was April Fool's Day, 1979 -- 30 years ago this week -- when Randall Thompson first set foot inside the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pa.

It was the single worst disaster ever to befall the U.S. nuclear power industry, and Thompson was hired as a health physics technician to go inside the plant and find out how dangerous the situation was. He spent 28 days monitoring radiation releases.

Today, his story about what he witnessed at Three Mile Island is being brought to the public in detail for the first time -- and his version of what happened during that time, supported by a growing body of other scientific evidence, contradicts the official U.S. government story that the Three Mile Island accident posed no threat to the public.

"What happened at TMI was a whole lot worse than what has been reported," Randall Thompson told Facing South. "Hundreds of times worse."

Thompson and his wife, Joy, a nuclear health physicist who also worked at TMI in the disaster's aftermath, claim that what they witnessed there was a public health tragedy. The Thompsons also warn that the government's failure to acknowledge the full scope of the disaster is leading officials to underestimate the risks posed by a new generation of nuclear power plants.

While new reactor construction ground to a halt after the 1979 incident, state leaders and energy executives today are pushing for a nuclear energy revival that's centered in the South, where 12 of the 17 facilities seeking new reactors are located.

Fundamental to the industry's case for expansion is the claim that history proves nuclear power is clean and safe -- a claim on which the Thompsons and others, bolstered by startling new evidence, are casting doubt.

An unlikely critic

Randall Thompson could never be accused of being a knee-jerk anti-nuclear alarmist. A veteran of the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine program, he is a self-described "nuclear geek" who after finishing military service jumped at the chance to work for commercial nuclear power companies.

He worked for a time at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant south of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania's York County, but quit the industry six months before the TMI disaster over concerns that nuclear companies were cutting corners for higher profits, with potentially dangerous results.

But the moment the Thompsons heard about the TMI incident, they wanted to get inside the plant and see what was happening first-hand. That didn't prove difficult: Plant operator Metropolitan Edison's in-house health physics staff fled after the incident began, so responsibility for monitoring radioactive emissions went to a private contractor called Rad Services.

The company immediately hired Randall Thompson to serve as the health physics technician in charge of monitoring radioactive emissions, while Joy Thompson got a job monitoring radiation doses to TMI workers. What the Thompsons say they found out during their time inside TMI suggests radiation releases from the plant were hundreds if not thousands of times higher than the government and industry have acknowledged -- high enough to cause the acute health effects documented in people living near the plant but that have been dismissed by the industry and the government as impossible given official radiation dose estimates. "I think the numbers on the NRC's website are off by a factor of 100 to 1,000," he said.

Exactly how much radiation was released is impossible to say, since onsite monitors immediately went off the scale after the explosion. But Gundersen points to an inside report by an NRC manager who himself estimated the release of about 36 million curies -- almost three times as much as the NRC's official estimate. Gundersen also notes that industry itself has acknowledged there was a total of 10 billion curies of radiation inside the reactor containment. Using the common estimate that a tenth of it escaped, that means as much as a billion curies could have been released to the environment.

Gundersen also offered compelling evidence based on pressure monitoring data from the plant that shortly before 2 p.m. on March 28, 1979 there was a hydrogen explosion inside the TMI containment building that could have released significant amounts of radiation to the environment. The NRC and industry to this day deny there was an explosion, instead referring to what happened as a "hydrogen burn." But Gundersen noted that affidavits from four reactor operators confirm that the plant manager was aware of a dramatic pressure spike after which the internal pressure dropped to outside pressure; he also noted that the control room shook and doors were blown off hinges. In addition, Gundersen reported that while Metropolitan Edison would have known about the pressure spike immediately from monitoring equipment, it didn't notify the NRC about what had happened until two days later.

Gundersen maintains under the NRC's own rules an evacuation should have been ordered on the disaster's first day, when calculated radiation exposures in the town of Goldsboro, Pa. were as high as 10 rems an hour compared to an average cumulative annual background dose of about 0.125 rems. No evacuation order was ever issued, though Gov. Dick Thornburgh did issue an evacuation advisory on March 30 for pregnant women and preschool children within 5 miles of the plant.
I routinely ridicule stupid conspiracy theories, like those espoused by the birther movement; I particularly laugh at bat-shit crazies like Orly Taitz.  I am unwilling to rush to distrust our government or the Japanese government, but I also recognize that our governments don't always tell us the truth.  Revisiting the origins of the Iraq War in the context of the Libyan military action is too vivid a reminder of that fact.  That our Republican majorities appear far too willing to ignore or even snear at science is evident, and that they are far, far too willing to sell out the average American citizen if big corporate money is waved under their nose appears far to often to be a legitimate accusation.  Looking at the contributions, directly to conservative campaigns, and indirectly through the spending of PACs on behalf of conservatives, it is worth noting that energy interests, especially big oil and big coal, are among the most manipulatively spending donors.
I am not inherently anti-nuclear energy (I emphasize pronouncing it correctly, unlike 'W').  I don't have a knee-jerk rejection of building new nuclear power plants, with the caveat that instead of additional plants, we shut down the aging existing plants and replace them with the newest and most innovative improvements we can produce.  Most urgently, we should shut down nuclear plants that like the ones having problems in Japan, are located on geologic fault lines subject to earthquakes, and relocate them if possible to safer locations.  So many new possibilities have emerged since the early nuclear plants were built, including the potential for less dangerous nuclear fuel, like Thorium, as well as developing better ways to recycle existing spent fuel to extract more energy which is not only going to waste, but is hazardous in its present form.

But I am unwilling to unquestioningly accept the assurances of authorities who stand to benefit from being less than straightforward or forthcoming about the actual risks and damages without much more extensive documentation from independent sources, documentation which stands up to verification.  So very much on the right does not:

Public reaction to the event was probably influenced by The China Syndrome, a movie which had recently been released and which depicts an accident at a nuclear reactor.[5] Communications from officials during the initial phases of the accident were felt to be confusing.[6] The accident crystallized anti-nuclear safety concerns among activists and the general public, resulted in new regulations for the nuclear industry, and has been cited as a contributor to the decline of new reactor construction that was already underway in the 1970s.

The incident was rated a five on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale: Accident With Wider Consequences

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