Alternative Energy Through History

In our modern times, there is a need to find alternative ways to help fuel the nation. Though many may believe the need for alternative energy sources is a new concept, it is not. In 1939, German scientists discovered that splitting molecular bonds of plutonium and uranium could generate energy. They were successful in discovering a process called nuclear fission. Eventually, this process would become known as nuclear power. It is a concept that was welcomed by many and exists within the United States. In the United States today, there are “there are 58 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 96 nuclear reactors in 29 U.S. states.” (EIA, 2019) And for those who do not know, there are two nuclear power plants in New Jersey, The Salem Nuclear Power Plant in Salem County, New Jersey and the Forked River Power Plant. There are five nuclear power plants operating in the State of New York and four in the State of Pennsylvania. Proponents of nuclear power believe that this form of energy and how it is produced and its facilities are safe, as long as the plants are maintained and proper procedures are accomplished in order to generate power that does not create greenhouse gas pollutants.

The process that are employed to generate power are the splitting of uranium atoms called fission. When this occurs, heat is generated and steam is produced. The steam generated is used to turn turbine generators. The turning of the generators produces clean energy. Once the process is completed, the reactor rods are cooled down with water. The cool water helps disperse the extreme heat to prevent a meltdown of the reactor rods. If all is done correctly, nuclear power plants are relatively safe. To assure safety, precautions have to be maintained and procedures followed. If the precautions and procedures are deferred, then safety is lost and a disaster can occur as it did on March 28, 1979 in the Londonderry Township, just outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. On this day, The Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station experienced a meltdown and will be forever be known as the worst nuclear disaster in the United States.

At 4:00am on March 28, 1979, Three Mile Island Reactor 2 (TMI-2) experienced a partial meltdown. A core meltdown happens when the heat that is generated by a nuclear reactor rises above the heat that is being expelled by the cooling systems. It is best understood as to when one nuclear fuel element reaches and exceeds its melting point. A meltdown is caused by the departure of its coolant sources, pressure, or other factors. When this point of no return is reached, a fire may occur and endanger the core which leads to a melt-down. To prevent such meltdowns, water is introduced to the reactor’s nuclear core where the heat is transferred to water. The heated water is released and the reactions that are produced within the reactor can be terminated. Upon the cooling processes success, hot, radioactive material will continue to generate heat for a long time will be disposed. Investigations into the disaster were blamed on a series of equipment malfunctions that include design flaws and errors created by plant workers. The errors caused the reactor to experience a melt-down experience a melt-down which caused the release of radioactive gasses to become dispersed in to the air.

The site at Three Mile Island contained two pressurized water reactors TMI-1 and TMI-2. TMI-1 was built in 1974 and the newer TMI-2 was known to have generated more power than its predecessor. The day prior, the one out of the two reactors was operating at a 97% capacity. Then, there was a malfunction that caused the cooling processes caused the reactor to shut down. The shutdown was considered a normal reaction due to the installed cooling circuit that allows the reactor to remain at a specific temperature. If the temperature rises, and cooling cannot be accomplished, the circuit shuts the system down.

 When the system is shut down, the temperature in the reactor rises and allows pressure to build. Normally, a pressure valve opens to release pressure. When a suitable pressure is reached, the valve closes. In this case, a valve remained open. When operators witnessed the closed valve, many assumed that adequate pressure was reached. During this time, steam was being released from the open valve. The steam was coming from the water that was used to cool down the reactors. Immediately, alarms were sounded and warning lights began to flash. At this point, the reactor was experiencing a malfunction of the coolant process where it was experiencing a loss of the coolant. The engineers were not aware of the problem. At this point, when the problem was known, the engineers adjusted the flow of the water that was used to replace what was lost. They then figured, based on their training assessed that there was too much water within the reactor. They began to reduce the pressure they believed to be building up. Again, an assumption was made that lead them to believe the steam was rising in the primary cooling system to help cool down the pumps. Then they realized the pressure could damage the system by having the rupture occur in the cooling system. The pumps were turned off do alleviate the vibrations occurring from the rising pressures. At this point, the reactor began to release radioactive material into the coolant since the pumps were in operational.

The actions that were performed to control the flow of the cooling water created a very volatile situation. All morning, the operators attempted to do away with the steam bubbles by attempting to force them out of the coolant. This took up most of their time while a more serious problem was forming. Radioactive gases formed inside the reactor. The reactor built up heat and a meltdown occurred. Investigations revealed “at least 45% (62 metric tons) of the core had melted. Video examinations also indicated that approximately 19 000 kg (19 metric tons) of molten material had relocated onto the lower head of the reactor vessel.” (Rubin, 1994) The concern was for the people within the surrounding area who were exposed to the fallout. To accommodate present and future problems, the Pennsylvania Department of Health enacted a registry. The registry would study the radiation-induced health effects. The state would continue to conduct Health and behavioral resurveys of the population approximately every 5 years and study population mobility, morbidity, and mortality because the radiation dose from TMI was extremely small, any increase in morbidity or mortality attributable to the accident would be so small as not to be measurable by present methods; however, adverse health effects as a result of psychological stress may occur. Also, a temporary increase in reporting of disease could occur because of increased surveillance and attention to health. (Goldhaber, 1983)

It was suspected by tests of those affected by the disaster to receive a small dose of radiation released from the gasses, however, they were wrong. In recent reports and studies, it has been found that the “Residents around Three Mile Island were exposed to much more radiation from the nuclear disaster than was claimed by officials, a fact that was kept from researchers and the public for years.” (BNI, 2019) The disaster is a result of inadequate training, as well as emergency procedures, and antiquated control room instrumentation that caused a disaster to occur and infecting a population with radioactive fallout that many are experiencing today.

Regardless of the career that one is engaging within, it is best that proper training and knowledge is provided to all that responsible for an operation that can harm man and nature. There should not be an acceptable atmosphere that all is well without actually knowing how well the environment is operating. In the case of Three Mile Island, everyone thought everything was fine until the unbelievable occurred.