Gizmodo published a blog entry by Adam Frucci titled The China Syndrome And Why We Wussed Out On Nuclear Power in which he describes how a coincidental sequence of events turned a 1979 “B” movie into a blockbuster that is still making money today.
While The China Syndrome was still in theaters during its first run, Three Mile Island Unit 2 experienced an accident that seemed to resemble the event portrayed in the movie. Media attention and a presidential visit caused the entire nation to focus on what was happening, while many of the people in the area were frightened by public statements from political and technical “experts” who seemed afraid themselves of what might happen.
After the plant operators had completed their response actions and all of the hype had died down, the final result was that the public was never exposed to radiation levels significantly above background, no plant operators had been injured, and there were no deaths associated with the accident.
Adam Frucci concluded his post with useful food for thought:
Instead, we had a movie that hysterically made up fake info about the danger of nuclear power and the evil intentions of those behind power plants that turned a relatively minor accident into a huge outcry against nuclear power. And now here we are 30 years later, still skiddish about what is probably the safest and most eco-friendly source of power we’ve got. Thanks for nothing, Jack Lemmon!
I recently had a conversation with Ted Rockwell about his company’s effort during the plant clean up and postmortem analysis. Gizmodo’s post provided me with a small opportunity to share what I had learned during that conversation, so I added the following comment to Frucci’s post:
There is an old Chinese saying about travel that is worth mentioning:
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
With regard to the frequently mentioned “China Syndrome” we have completed the experiment and analyzed the results.
At Three Mile Island, the operators took action that stopped all cooling flow within minutes of full power operation and did not restore that cooling until many hours later. In the interim period, more than 40% of the core melted because of decay heat. In other words, the accident was not a near miss; the core experienced a substantial meltdown.
One of my good friends, Ted Rockwell, was one of the leaders of MPR Associates, an engineering company assigned to the clean up and analysis of the effects of the event.
He told me that his company was part of the team that determined, through physical examination with remotely controlled tools, that the melted “corium” froze when it contacted the metal cladding of the pressure vessel. The MAXIMUM penetration of that material into the cladding was 5/8 of an inch. There was still more than 8 inches of steel pressure vessel before the core even left its original container. Before the corium could leave the containment vessel, it would have had to penetrate foundations and more than 4 feet of concrete reinforced with thick steel bars.
Since there are approximately 8,000 miles of soil, rock, magma and other assorted materials between Pennsylvania and China, one can compute that the “journey” to China STOPPED after the corium traveled less than 1 of the 507 MILLION inches necessary to make it to the end.
With that data in hand, it is possible to stake my personal credibility on stating that anything close to a “China Syndrome” from a nuclear reactor meltdown is a complete impossibility that can only serve to cause fear among people who have NO IDEA what they are talking about.
Reference: Nuclear Power Plants And Their Fuel As Terrorist Targets Science volume 297 September 20, 2002.