What We Learned from the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident

April 20, 2011
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At 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, Unit 2 of the 900-MW reactor at the TMI-2 plant at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania experienced a partial core meltdown. Between 13 and 43 million curies of radioactive krypton gases were released, half the core melted, and 90% of the fuel rod cladding was destroyed. The maximum offsite radiation reached 83 millirem (0.83 millisievert), but the radiation dose received by the community was small.

Here, I will describe each “domino” in the sequence of events that led to this accident and contributed to the public distrust of nuclear energy. After each event, I will note in parenthesis how properly designed process control systems and better operator training could have prevented the accident.

For those familiar with such diagrams, Figure 1 shows the main components of the plant and the instrumentation that had a role in the accident (other instrumentation has been eliminated from the drawing). This simple process consisted of three heat transfer loops, located from the left to the right in the figure. The first or “primary” loop transfers the heat generated by nuclear fission into the high- pressure reactor cooling water (PWR). The heat from this closed circuit is transferred into the “secondary” feed water loop that takes it into the steam boiler. The steam is used to generate electricity in the turbine generator, while the waste heat from the condenser is sent to the cooling tower.

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