# The China Syndrome and Three Mile Island

1. Jan 29, 2009

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
Some people here may remember the movie, The China Syndrome.

...allegedly leading to a complete meltdown of the core. Note that in spite of the movie's title, the notion of the core going all the way to China is rebuffed even in the movie.

I never saw the movie until recently, so I never realized that it opened twelve days before the incident at Three Mile Island!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_China_Syndrome

Talk about bad luck for the nuclear industry... and great luck for Hollywood!

Then, four years later came the movie, Silkwood.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/interact/silkwood.html

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086312/

Not only that, in 1979 we also saw Love Canal.

http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/lovecanal/01.htm [Broken]

This certainly raised suspicion in the public mind in regards to the storage of toxic waste; including the storage of nuclear waste. The point? I just thought it was interesting to note the timeline of these events and the role that they certainly played in helping to shape the public perception of nuclear power.

Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
2. Jan 29, 2009

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
Indeed. It seems that nuclear is associated with a large "outrage" factor, much more so than in many other sectors of activity. An interesting read about that is what Peter Sandman tells about the issue on his website http://www.psandman.com/
Sandman is a known risk communication consultant and he has put much of his material online.

You see that in nuclear, most of the elements promoting "outrage" are present.
(see http://www.psandman.com/index-intro.htm and http://www.psandman.com/index-OM.htm on that same site).

Last edited by a moderator: Apr 24, 2017
3. Jan 29, 2009

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
I think the key word there is "trust". Vietnam was a recent memory, as was Nixon, and distrust of the government and large corporations was a given. This easily played into distrust of the nuclear industry. And the story of Silkwood didn't help to change this perception. Not only that, we lived under MAD - mutually assured destruction. The potential for the destruction of civiliation due to the use of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons was also a given. Even the men who implemented these policies called them MAD. As children, we had even practiced hiding under our desks in school in preparation for the day that the Russians attack. So the word "nuclear" was unavoidably associated with death and destruction. Next, the remote possibility of a meltdown in a nuclear plant was thought to be far more likely than calculated because of corruption and human failings, rather than because of the process or safeguards. I still adhere to this point of view in regards to both operation and security.

Note that in a post-911 world, we still find this:
http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/story?id=6597151&page=1

http://www.psandman.com/index-OM.htm

Chernobyl was seven years later, in 1986.

Last edited: Jan 29, 2009
4. Jan 29, 2009

### Staff: Mentor

While neither a sleeping security guard saftey nor Chernobyl have much useful to say about the safety of modern nuclear power, they really do hammer home the point of vansesch's link!
I've never seen that before, vanesch - it's a really good characterization of the problem. Thanks.

5. Jan 29, 2009

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
Chernobyl, no, but in part because of the timing it did help to shape public opinion. It took place on the heels of the other events mentioned. But sleeping security guards are another matter. This is a great example of how a system can begin to slide. For a more dramatic example we might consider the Challenger shuttle explosion. In spite of redundant safeties intended to prevent that sort of disaster and decision making process, in the end, budget concerns outweighed engineering concerns.

The Hubble telescope would be another example. In that case it was a blatant deception. And this latest peanut food poisoning fiasco might be another example of a malicious disregard for public safety in lieu of profit.

Last edited: Jan 29, 2009
6. Jan 30, 2009

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
The thing is, I have spent most of my thirty-year career watching people in industry cheat and cut corners. Not to say that it happens every day but it is fairly common to see things that shouldn't be done. Also, organizations [companies] can become severely dyfunctional. This in turn can lead to extremely incompetent management of systems and operations. This is partly what happened at NASA in regards to the Challenger.

Last edited: Jan 30, 2009
7. Jan 30, 2009

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
It was also the base of the Chernobyl disaster, btw. The level of incompetence and disfunctioning was total there, from design, through management, through operation, through emergency management. Everything there went as wrong as it could be, in every aspect.
But then, the whole Soviet Union was like that in the end.

Now, there's nothing special to nuclear. Nuclear disasters are not worse than other culminations of dysfunction and incompetence in large-scale activities when looking at cost and victims. If, on a large scale, everything dysfunctions, then that will give rise to cost and victims on a large scale. Not to say that Chernobyl was nothing, but it didn't play in a different category of disaster than other disasters - except maybe for one point: a piece of land has been turned in a natural reserve for a century or two, and is economically dead. Indeed, with most other disasters, there's not this aspect: after a few years at most, you can reconstruct on the same spot.

You could say that the dysfunctioning of the financial and banking system will probably cost much more and cause way more victims than Chernobyl did. But, true, a few years from now, hopefully, we can put that nightmare behind us and pretend it never happened. That cannot be said of the natural reserve in the 30 km zone around Chernobyl, which is now a natural park "with a guarantee".

That said, as long as there is a safety culture (that's the thing to check regularly), individual errors are not a problem: the system is normally designed to be robust against individual errors, and even relatively small accumulations of errors. That's the whole idea: that the safety of the whole thing is not based upon one or two elements. It is not because the guard was sleeping that there was a serious problem, by itself. It is not because this or that didn't function, that there was a problem. That's what people have sometimes a hard time realizing: the system is designed such that individual problems are never an overall problem. You need a long chain of individual errors before something serious can start to happen. Of course, if the whole chain is rotten, you will get a serious problem in the end. So one should check the integrity of the whole system, which is nothing else but the safety culture.

8. Jan 30, 2009

Staff Emeritus
I don't think it was evil so much as ineptitude. The Allen Report says "The Perkin-Elmer plan for fabricating the primary mirror placed complete reliance on the reflective null corrector as the only test to be used in both manufacturing and verifying the mirror's surface with the required precision. NASA understood and accepted this plan. This methodology should have alerted NASA management to the fragility of the process and the possibility of gross error, that is, a mistake in the process, and the need for continued care and consideration of independent measurements."

I do think that this is an example of what happens when QA paperwork becomes an end unto itself and becomes more important than actual QA. This is the biggest problem I see with trying to create a "safety culture" - what can happen (and has happened) is that safety paperwork becomes more important than actual safety.

But there certainly other disasters that do this. Coal seam fires have rendered sections of Pennsylvania uninhabitable for decades. St. Lucia's Flood in what is now the Netherlands in 1287 has permanently reshaped the Dutch coast - places where people once lived are underwater even today.

9. Feb 6, 2009

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
10. Feb 6, 2009

### mgb_phys

This was defiantly the problem with Nasa at the time of Hubble (and in the years after) they had a large number of inspectors at PE's plant, all of them checking the quality paperwork but nobody checking the actual work.
Rather like the security theatre of airport security

11. Mar 29, 2009

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus

In the news, yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the failure.

12. Mar 29, 2009

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
The question is in how much this was a "near catastrophe", or an almost non-event.

The first barrier (the fuel cladding) melted, but simply due to remnant heat (radioactive decay), the reactor was stopped. The second barrier (the reactor vessel) was somewhat damaged on the inside, but didn't break, and the 3rd barrier (the confinement building) was still there. So we were still 2 barriers away from the products being released to the outside, and even if that were the case, it would have been a slow, leaking release - nothing comparable to Chernobyl where everything was put out in a smoke plume driven by a still working reactor and a huge fire directly high in the atmosphere.

So even if (and that's pretty unthinkable) the 2 other barriers would have been broken, we would have had a very serious, but very local, contamination of the site and slightly beyond, apart from a release of volatiles such as I-131, which would have indeed contaminated a larger area, but for a few weeks only. So one would have to evacuate for a few weeks the area in, say a few miles around it, give non-active iodine to inhabitants, and have a serious local cleanup mess on site.

In other words, the hypothetical "near catastrophe" would be equivalent to a similar accident of a local release of toxic products in industry.

Statistically, probably a few people would get a cancer (as they would if there were a release somewhere of say, aromatic hydrocarbons or something) a few decades later.

So the catastrophe wasn't that near, and wasn't that terrible.

13. Mar 29, 2009

Staff Emeritus
Even the worst case of TMI would have been far less severe than Bhopal, and carbaryl is still in use almost worldwide.

14. Mar 29, 2009

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus

Can you even imagine an evacuation at that scale? Experience tells us that it is almost impossible to evacuate even one city.

So let's consider something like San Onofre nuclear power plant, in California. A 500 mile evacuation perimeter would include all of San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and even San Francisco. Do you really think this is feasible? It would probably destroy the US economy... in fact it almost certainly would; if not the global economy.

Note that the GDP of California is about 1.7 trillion dollars US - counting as the 13th largest country and just a little smaller than the GDP of France.
https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2001rank.html
http://www.dof.ca.gov/HTML/FS_DATA/LatestEconData/Data/Miscellaneous/Bbgsp.xls [Broken]

Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
15. Mar 29, 2009

### Ivan Seeking

Staff Emeritus
My favorite part of the video is where the country's two foremost experts on the situation were arguing about whether or not the plant was about to blow up due to a hydrogen explosion, even as Jimmy Carter was arriving to see the plant. By the time Carter was informed of the danger, he had already publically committed to seeing the plant. To turn back at that point would send a catastrophic message to the nation. How would you like to be an engineer caught in the middle of that mess?

Last edited: Mar 29, 2009
16. Mar 29, 2009

### Brilliant!

A very unfortunate fate for such an amazingly powerful and efficient source of energy.

I'm of the opinion that the opposition isn't driven so much by fear as it is by politics, which is driven by the oil industry. Currently, 20% of the US' electricity is generated by nuclear power plants. I'd think if it were the case that the opposition was completely driven by fear, the government would spend just as much time fencing anti-nuke activists as they would environmentalists.

By the way, that statistic should be enough to destroy any argument about "incompetence". Currently, there are 104 operational nuclear reactors in the US. Perpetuating the belief that we aren't responsible enough for nuclear technology is reckless, irresponsible, and wholly dangerous to economics.

Nuclear power is the way to go, and the market is ready for it. Now, if only people would stop being so unreasonable.

Last edited: Mar 29, 2009
17. Mar 29, 2009

Staff Emeritus
And about 2% by oil. Hard to see how the oil industry has much to gain here.

18. Mar 29, 2009

### Astronuc

Staff Emeritus
http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epm/table1_1.html

Coal is nearly 50%, and natural gas has eclipsed nuclear as the second leading source.

Certainly the coal industry has an incentive to have new generation being coal, while gas producers have an incentive to have new generation from gas-fired plants.

19. Mar 29, 2009

### vanesch

Staff Emeritus
To really be certain, a perimeter of 50 000 miles would even be safer, don't you think ?

If it would ruin the US economy to evacuate 500 miles around the plant, to avoid people to get, say, a 0.5 mSv (*) extra dose or something of the kind in that area, then the best thing to do is not to evacuate. And to let them have their dose. It would be far far far less costly to have a few thousand extra cancers over a 50 years time, than to do something crazy like that, wouldn't it ?

A "nuclear catastrophe" is nothing else but a pollution event, with a certain potential health impact, which is, apart from strong expositions nearby, quite small as compared to most pollutions we already undergo. And it is pretty rare. Not entirely impossible, true.

(*) world average natural yearly dose: 2.4 mSv.

20. Mar 29, 2009

### Brilliant!

Sorry, I did mean 'coal industry'. I've had so many conversations about the oil industry that it's almost a habit to type "oil" before the word "industry".

That being said, Astronuc has made a good point in favor of my typo.

21. Mar 29, 2009

### Brilliant!

Fortunately for natural gas, they have the benefit of relatively unmitigated allowance for expansion. In nuclear's case, most growth is made through upgrading the existing reactors.

When (and if) the majority comes to accept nuclear power, it's share of the production of electricity will sky-rocket.

22. Mar 29, 2009

### Staff: Mentor

I think we should design skyscrapers to withstand asteroid impacts.

23. Mar 29, 2009

### Astronuc

Staff Emeritus
:rofl: That reminds me of a lady, apparently a member of an anti-nuclear, pro-environmental group, who came to our university to sit in a presentation that was given by someone from the nuclear industry. The talk was on safety, and I think it covered some of the issues with Three Mile Island.

She asked - "What if large meteroid struck a nuclear power plant?" A large meteroid is essentially an asteroid.

The presenter indicated that if a meteroid was so large, the nuclear plant would be the least of the worries. The implication is that a sufficiently large meteroid would have a much greater devastating effect than a breach of a nuclear plant.

The problem with natural gas is the price volatility. As I understand it, gas-fired plants loose money when the price of gas goes up because they were built to be profitable at around $2-3 /MMBtu. Above about$5-6/MMBtu, they are marginal or break-even. But when gas was about \$7+/MMBtu, the plants were losing money through generation, and the only way to make money is to sell gas directly to heating.

Since the completion of the last plants, various utilities have increased the output of many nuclear plants anywhere for about 7% to 20%, and there are some looking at further power extensions, in addition to plant life extension from 40 yrs to 60 yrs.

We're still waiting for new plant orders, although NRG has apparently purchased two pressure vessels and large components for two ABWRs to be sited at the South Texas Project.

Last edited: Mar 29, 2009
24. Mar 29, 2009

### Brilliant!

This is really exciting because, along with GE, Toshiba and Hitachi are hoping to get in on the South Texas Project. If they become a fixed source of nuclear technology for the US, there's no telling what advances we'll see in the near future.

25. Mar 29, 2009

### Astronuc

Staff Emeritus
Toshiba just bought Westinghouse from BNFL, so Toshiba has more or less parted ways with GE/Hitachi, which have formed a joint company GEH (GE-Hitachi) in the US. Toshiba/Westinghouse markets the AP1000. GEH is marketing the ABWR and ESBWR. Unfortunately, two utilities who were looking at ESBWR have backed out.

AREVA has their EPR, two of which are being built at Flamanville, Fr and Olkiluoto, Fi, but both plants are having problems.
EPR - Flamanville 3 The EPR is designed to prevent a China Syndrome event.