40 Years After Three Mile Island Accident, Renewable Energy Eclipsing Nuclear Power

Interview with Tim Judson, executive director with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, conducted by Scott Harris

March 28 marked the 40th anniversary of the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the worst accident at a commercial nuclear power plant in the nation’s history. A combination of flawed plant design, equipment malfunction and human error led to a loss of cooling water that resulted in the partial meltdown of the plant’s Unit 2 reactor. Although no official evacuation of the area was ordered by the state, then Gov. Dick Thornburgh suggested that pregnant women and families with young children leave. Decades later, epidemiological health studies have found higher rates of cancer among area residents where nuclear fallout was released into the atmosphere.
The 1979 accident at Three Mile Island dramatically derailed what had – until then – been dramatic growth by the nuclear industry. Fifty-one U.S. reactors were canceled between 1980 and 1984, and no new nuclear reactors were authorized to be built until 2012. Subsequent major disasters at nuclear power plants at Russia’s Chernobyl reactor in 1986 and Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power station in 2011 have justifiably triggered public opposition to nuclear power worldwide.
As a share of domestic energy production, nuclear power provided just under 20 percent of the U.S. electrical generation in 2018. By comparison, over the past 10 years, renewable energy sources, including wind, solar and hydropower, nearly doubled their share growing from 9.25 percent to almost 18 percent last year.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Tim Judson, executive director with the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. Here, he reflects on the 40th anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the current state of the nuclear industry, and renewable energy sources which are overtaking nuclear power.
TIM JUDSON: You know, it’s really important that we talk about what happened at Three Mile Island even 40 years later in part because what happened that day has been misconstrued, misreporte, downplayed and covered up for the last 40 years. Starting on the day of the accident or the disaster itself – I actually don’t say “accident,” even though that’s the term that’s usually used, because you know what happened at Three Mile Island was not an accident. It was entirely predictable. You know, “accident” sort of implies something like a tree blowing over and landing on your car. This was an industrial disaster of a massive scale. There were lots of warning signs and precautions that could have been taken to avoid it – and weren’t. And it’s important to acknowledge that people had responsibility for that.

So with Three Mile Island on March 28, 1979, you had what could have been a fairly benign malfunction where you had a leak in a cooling line that shut down the main coolant pumps to the reactor. That triggered a series of events, all of which went badly. The operators misinterpreted some of the alarms and the signals and the gauges they were reading. Other systems ended up malfunctioning. But what you had was very rapidly, within actually a minute, you had the conditions for a reactor accident or reactor disaster already taking shape.

And so, within an hour basically of this cooling pump failing, they were losing hundreds of thousands of gallons of water from the reactor being blown out as steam and that water started to collect and be pumped into an auxiliary building where the intensely radioactive gases that were in that water started to leak to the environment. And the reactor operators didn’t realize any of this was happening for over two hours and so by the time they realized that, there was essentially a full-scale nuclear meltdown already underway. Within a few hours later by that afternoon, there was actually a hydrogen explosion within the reactor building that released large amounts of radiation into the surrounding environment and by that point there was virtually no way to contain the radiation that was being released by the reactor.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Tim, what was the effect on the population after decades have gone by? What have long-term studies shown, if there’s been any effect of that radiation on people’s health?

TIM JUDSON: Yeah. The studies that have been done have shown that there’s actually been a really significant increase in cancers and other diseases in the communities near Three Mile Island. One of the things that’s important to recognize is the official government studies tend to tend to look in the wrong places to find these problems.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that an epidemiologist did a study of the effects of the accident, then looked at what really happened on that day. What was going on weatherwise and the days around the time of the disaster, was that there was an air inversion, a temperature inversion over the Susquehannah River Valley area where Three Mile Island is located. And that trapped the air in the valley from getting over the sides of the hills and into the surrounding area. So basically, the radiation that was released from Three Mile island mostly stayed along the river up and down from where Three Mile Island sits.

And if you look at those areas, you find that the cancers have increased by two to three times what the normal levels are. So the communities around Three Mile Island have really suffered due to the releases of radiation during the disaster.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Thank you for that, Tim. Tell us generally what the status of renewable energy sources are here in the United States. Sources like wind and solar as it compares to nuclear power right now.

TIM JUDSON: Sure. Well, wind and solar, you know, really are the future and they’re here and the cost and the quality and technology with renewable energy generally, but especially with wind and solar, has really just in the last 10 years, You know, solar now costs I think more than 80 percent less than it did 10 years ago. Wind power is, you know, is on the order of 40 to 50 percent cheaper than it was 10 years ago. Wind and solar now basically are dollar for dollar, the most cost-effective forms of generating electricity that we have, even more so than natural gas, which has been, you know, which really has been kind of held up as the cheap new energy source. But now it’s wind and solar.

BETWEEN THE LINES: You know, the part of the trouble is that the utility industry and the fossil fuel and nuclear industries in particular have been trying to prevent renewable energy from really taking off in the U.S. because it really challenges their core businesses. So you have places in the country where renewables have been really encouraged and allowed to take off like in not necessarily in blue states like California, but also in Texas and Kansas and Iowa where, renewables are growing faster than than nuclear power ever has or ever could probably.

And you know, we’re really in a position where if you look at what happens when states and local governments do things to encourage renewable energy – do the right thing to encourage renewable energy – then we can really have a clean energy revolution taking shape in this country within a few years.

For more information on Nuclear Information and Resource Service, NIRS.org.

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