Three Mile Island

Published: 1979
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Jim Lounsbury: While relations with Iran are at what seems to be an irreversible downslide, 1979 marked the year which saw the U.S. begin normal diplomatic relations with an old-time enemy. On January 1st, the new year began with a major change in global politics when the United States and China formally recognized each other diplomatically. The year was only a few weeks old when the Chinese Vice-Premier became the first mainland dignitary to visit the United States in three decades.

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Jim Lounsbury: A simple mechanical accident at 4:00 in the morning last March at Three Mile Island touched off the worst accident in the history of American nuclear power. It terrified the area for many miles around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, it renewed the debate over the future of nuclear power, and it probably will lead to the most far-reaching safety improvements in history. Pye Chamberlayne was at Three Mile Island, and this is his report.

Pye Chamberlayne: "Last March 28th in the hours just before dawn on an island in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, a pump failed in nuclear-power plant number 2. It and sister reactor number 1 were brand-new examples of the best, supposedly, nuclear technology on earth. Prototypes of the equipment the engineers and the power industry had said could never go berserk and threaten massive death and destruction. Nothing should have happened. Two backup valves should have been opened and kept the cooling function intact. They were not. Months later, after an exhaustive investigation, the Chairman of a Presidentially appointed Commission, John Kemeny, analyzed the accident."

Chairman John Kemeny: "First of all, while the operator actions were inappropriate, we feel that the training of those very same operators was greatly deficient, and this contributed in a significant way to the course of the accident.

"Secondly, those operators were operating under procedures that they were required to follow, and our review and study of those indicates that the procedures were inadequate -- indeed, in some cases, totally confusing.

"Thirdly, the operators had to act on the information available to them in that control room, and we find that while their control room may have been adequate for normal operation of the plant, it was greatly inadequate for managing an accident. Information available was poor, confusing and in a form that, while all there, it was not there in the manner that could have helped those operators manage the accident well."

Pye Chamberlayne: "Perhaps most frighteningly, the Commission found that there had been similar incidents in similar plants that had never fully come to light. Back in March, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, after initial fumbling, got a handle on the problem, brought the reactor to a cool, unthreatening condition. The residents who had fled the area in panic began to return. But NRC officials themselves were frightened to find how little they knew about accident management. The Kemeny panel was deeply critical."

Chairman John Kemeny: "To prevent nuclear accidents as serious as Three Mile Island, fundamental changes will be necessary in the organization, procedures and practices and, above all, in the attitude of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and to the extent that the institutions we investigated are typical of the nuclear industry."

Pye Chamberlayne: "New power-plant licenses won't be granted until sweeping changes are made in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, change is now underway.

"The long-term future of nuclear power in the United States is a subject of less-frantic debate. In Europe, Three Mile Island has had no impact on nuclear plans; the power plants there are being built at an accelerating rate. This is Pye Chamberlayne reporting."

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