Friday, March 27, 2009

What really happened atTMI 25 years ago

Special to NewsLanc from H. Michael Gray. Gray wrote the original screenplay for "The China Syndrome." His book, "The Warning: Accident at TMI," is based on his on-scene reporting, operator interviews, and the five official studies that followed.

The "unplanned event" at Three Mile Island 30 years ago this month was set in motion by the failure of a $20 check valve in a half-inch copper pipe. That minor incident led to a series of cascading failures that presented the men in the control room with a situation they had never seen before and had never been trained to handle. With key instruments gone haywire, flying blind, they made a couple of bad choices that wiped out the plant and released a still unknown amount of radioactivity into the air.

For several years, the wreckage of the reactor itself was too hot to approach so we didn't know how close we had come. But when the inspectors were finally able to lower a camera into the pressure vessel, the image was a heart-stopper. There was nothing left of the 150-ton uranium core but rubble. Parts of it had turned to liquid. Which means that at some moment on that fateful Wednesday, the reactor at TMI was within 30 minutes of the "China Syndrome" -- a melt-down comparable to the disaster at Chernobyl. Had it not been for a lucky operator who flipped a switch to see what would happen, the Pennsylvania state capitol might now be a ghost town.

The current world-wide scramble for dwindling oil reserves is forcing us to take another look at good neighbor nuke. But before we hit the on-switch, we need to carefully consider the lessons of Chernobyl and TMI: nuclear power is a completely unforgiving technology. The worst-case scenario must always be front and center --- because Murphy's Law turns out to be as immutable as the law of gravity. "If something can go wrong, it will."