Some lessons were learned from TMI. Others were not.

Three Mile Island from the air

Three Mile Island

On March 28, 1979, a little more than thirty-five years ago, a nuclear reactor located on an island in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial core melt.

On some levels, the accident that became known as TMI (Three Mile Island) was a wake-up call and an expensive learning opportunity for both the nuclear industry and the society it was attempting to serve. Some people woke up, some considered the event a nightmare that they would do anything to avoid repeating, and some hard lessons were properly identified and absorbed. Unfortunately, some people learned the wrong lessons and some of the available lessons were never properly interpreted or assimilated.

The melted fuel remained inside the TMI unit 2 pressure vessel, nearly all the volatile and water-soluble fission products remained inside the reactor containment, and there were no public health impacts. The plant was a total loss after just three months of commercial operation, the plant buildings required a clean-up effort that took 14 years, the plant owner went bankrupt, and the utility customers paid dearly for the accident.

The other unit on the same site, TMI-1, continues to operate well today under a different owner.

Although the orders for new nuclear power plants had already stopped several years before the accident, and there were already people writing off the nuclear industry’s chances for a recovery, the TMI accident’s emotional and financial impacts added another obstacle to new plant project development.

In the United States, it took more than 30 years to finally begin building new nuclear power plants. These plants incorporate some of the most important lessons in their design and operational concepts from the beginning of the project development process. During the new plant construction hiatus, the U.S. electricity industry remained as dependent as ever on burning coal and burning natural gas.
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Nuclear Energy: Past, Present, and Future

Peter Bradford and Rod Adams

On Friday, March 28, 2014, I had the privilege of attending a symposium at Dartmouth College titled Three Mile Island 35th Anniversary Symposium: The Past, Present, and Future of Nuclear Energy. If you are curious and have a free nine hours, you can watch an archived copy of the main event on YouTube. The thing […]

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Atomic Show #214 – Age of Radiance Author Craig Nelson

The Age of Radiance is good read that adds personality and details to a story I know pretty well – the history of the Atomic Age from the discovery of radiation, to the discovery of fission, to the Manhattan Project to apply the newfound power to the task of creating a war-ending super weapon, and […]

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Alvin Weinberg’s liquid fuel reactors

Figure 6. Senators John Kennedy and Al Gore Sr flank Alvin Weinberg on a visit to ORNL

A nuclear pioneer’s work on safer, cheaper, inexhaustible nuclear power is still inspiring nuclear environmentalists. by Robert Hargraves Physicist Alvin Weinberg worked on the Manhattan Project and later co-invented the pressurized water nuclear reactor. As Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory he led development of liquid fuel reactors, including walk-away-safe liquid fluoride thorium reactors with […]

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Muller influenced the BEAR to adopt the Linear No Threshold (LNT) assumption in 1956

Hermann Muller, the 1946 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine, insisted that there was no threshold of risk from ionizing radiation. His opinion has had a long lasting influence on standards for radiation dose. He was wrong. History is complicated. Influential people often impose their will with long-lasting results. The stories can be difficult […]

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60 Years Ago, Ike, the Most Visionary President of the 20th Century, Gave Atoms for Peace Speech

On December 8, 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his forward-leaning Atoms for Peace speech at a gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in Bermuda. His vision for the world has not yet been realized, but remembering some of his thoughts might inspire some thinkers to take action. There are many reasons why many decision […]

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Root cause of Naval Reactors policy of strict secrecy about nuclear propulsion plant design

As a Navy nuke, I was carefully taught to believe that everything we learned about atomic energy had to be strictly protected from release to anyone who was not “cleared”, especially anyone who was not a US citizen. I started to question that policy after I completed my tour as the Engineer Officer on the […]

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The first Critmass, December 2, 1942

Seventy one years ago — on December 2, 1942, at 3:25 pm — Enrico Fermi and his team achieved the first controlled, man-made, self sustaining chain reaction in a simple reactor. In recognition of that historical event, several of my nuclear colleagues refer to December 2 as “Critmass” (short for critical mass). The first nuclear […]

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Atomic Show #210 – Leadership by Navy nukes

This show was inspired by a post on Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Healthiness titled Why I’m Not Afraid of Fukushima. That post was written by a guest blogger named Jeremiah Scott; he is an electrical engineering student who is attending college in the Pacific Northwest with the help of the GI bill. He […]

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Nuclear energy and nuclear weapons are not inherently linked as a single enterprise

I was disappointed by the speeches given during the plenary session of the 2013 American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting. There is no value in trying to say that more gently. The advertised theme of the still on-going conference is a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the human discovery of fission. That is the almost […]

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McMurdo Station – the New York of the Deep Freeze South

(Note: If you are impatient and do not want to watch cute photos of penguins, skip to 19:06 to learn more about the reasons why the PM-3A, a 1,500 kilowatt nuclear electricity generator and process heat supply system, was such a valuable contributor to sustained Antarctic research.) Nearly all of the images that are used […]

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