The nuclear options

Color photograph of the Three Mile Island nucl...

Three Mile Island (Image via Wikipedia)

A couple of notes concerning nuclear power as the Japanese continue to deal with their earthquake/tsunami related catastrophe.

This linked Web site, the MIT NSE Nuclear Information hub, is maintained by the students of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, and gives news, explanations and details of what’s currently happening at the Fukushima Nuclear plants.

Now if you’ve been following the details of the disaster, you’ve noticed that the news media have been making comparisons to the Fukushima situation and the 1979 nuclear nightmare at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

I’ve actually had some experience with TMI. I moved to Harrisburg in August 1979, several months after the March emergency, and worked in government as a spokesman. Part of the job involved keeping track of what was going on during the monitoring and cleanup of radiation on the island, which wasn’t that far from the state capital. I actually was at the nuclear plant in the early 1980s on the day they officially started venting radiation. The plant personnel gave visitors, who included the governor of Pennsylvania, plastic yellow hard hats and radiation badges. At one point in the tour, our guide pointed up to a metal cylinder, kind of like a smoke stack, and said they were venting through the thing we were standing under. At the end of the tour, they took the hats and the badges. Some time later, I received a notice that said I wasn’t exposed to radiation.

This is a roundabout way of saying that a comparison of Fukushima to TMI is unfair to Fukushima. In Japan, the plant withstood one of the strongest earthquakes in recorded history, then was hit by a tsunami that battered it with waves of up to 30 feet (almost twice as high as what the plant was built to withstand, and it managed to keep things together for a couple of days before things started to fall apart. But they’re putting up a fascinating and innovative disaster prevention effort. At Three Mile Island, incompetent technicians couldn’t read their dials and thought safety measures they had screwed up were working fine. Then, they got tired of listening to alarm bells going off (they thought it was a short circuit, and didn’t understand that a valve needed to cool the reactor was shut), so they turned off the alarms and let things fall apart for a few hours.

The Japanese are dealing with a natural disaster that no one could have imagined and no one could have prepared for … and they are getting things under control. The Americans had incompetent people in charge of something potentially deadly that they couldn’t understand and created a disaster that never should have happened.

Meanwhile, if reading the above MIT blog is too complicated, here’s a cartoon that explains things pretty well:

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