Three Mile Island anniversary: More accidents waiting to happen | Wis.Community

Three Mile Island anniversary: More accidents waiting to happen

Thoughts on March 28, the anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, which falls during a nuclear crisis in Japan. While the world reevaluates the cost and benefits of nukes, Wisconsin Republicans are determined to open the door to more nuclear reactors here. (More on that below)

No one in the world has yet operated a nuclear power plant safely for more than 50 years... Next year (2011) we will advocate for a bill that, either on its own or in combination with other policy initiatives, will remove that ban on new nuclear plant construction. --

Just when the nuclear industry was expecting a renaissance, there's been a dramatic reminder that nuclear reactors are dangerous. And it doesn't require an earthquake or a tsunami to cause an accident, as we learned at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Helen Caldicott, a pediatrician who has been president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, was asked:

Is it possible to have a safe nuclear power plant?


Caldicott: No. They are very complicated machines containing the energy released when an atom is split: Einstein's formula e=mc², the mass of the atom times the speed of light squared. Anything can go wrong: natural disasters, failure of cooling systems, human and computer error, terrorism, sabotage. Radioactive waste must be isolated from the ecosphere for half a million years or longer, a physical and scientific impossibility, and as it leaks it will concentrate in food chains, inducing epidemics of genetic diseases, leukemia and cancer in all future generations, the greatest public health hazard the world will ever see.

The sad truth is that it is inevitable that there will be another nuclear reactor accident, as long as there are hundreds of reactors operating around the world, just as there will surely be another disaster in the space program and another involving offshore drilling. Too many things have to happen perfectly for a very long period of time -- indefinitely, really -- for there not to be an accident.

During the time of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf, David Brooks wrote about it in the

In the first place, people have trouble imagining how small failings can combine to lead to catastrophic disasters. At the Three Mile Island nuclear facility, a series of small systems happened to fail at the same time. It was the interplay between these seemingly minor events that led to an unanticipated systemic crash.


Second, people have a tendency to get acclimated to risk. As the physicist Richard Feynman wrote in a report on the Challenger disaster, as years went by, NASA officials got used to living with small failures. If faulty O rings didn’t produce a catastrophe last time, they probably won’t this time, they figured.


Feynman compared this to playing Russian roulette. Success in the last round is not a good predictor of success this time. Nonetheless, as things seemed to be going well, people unconsciously adjust their definition of acceptable risk.

So people get used to the idea of accidents waiting to happen -- until they happen, and then we're surprised, but not really.

Nationally, away from nuclear power, a CBS poll found.

But in Wisconsin, it's full steam ahead, or nearly so, for plans to try to repeal the state law with sensible restrictions on building new reactors here. The GOP and the utilities have been trying for a decade to overturn the 1984 law, which they call a moratorium, but which simply says that before you can build a new reactor it must make economic sense and there must be a federal repository to dispose of the high-level radioactive waste the reactors produce.

That nuclear waste issue is a bit of a problem, since the industry and feds have had more than 50 years to find a safe, permanent solution and have not been able to do it. It's no small matter. The radioactive waste is so dangerous it must be kept out of the environment for 500,000 years or more.

Meanwhile, it accumulates, as what is called "spent fuel," in those "swimming pools" you've been seeing on TV since the Japanese crisis. Some of it has been transferred to dry casks, which are somewhat better, but it's all still stewing on Lake Michigan at the Point Beach and Kewaunee plants and 102 other reactors in the US.

By the way, the safety records of those plants is questionable, too. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has only issued five "red" findings -- for the most serious violations -- in its history. Three of them have gone to Point Beach.

So what's the industry solution? Let's return to the Journal Sentinel Q-A with Wisconsin Energy CEO Gale Klappa:

Q. On energy policy, what's your perspective on the Clean Energy Job Act that didn't pass in the Legislature?


 A. The bill had some positive aspects to it. One of those was the language that would remove the ban on building nuclear power plants. That was certainly my favorite part of the legislation because I so believe that down the road - not next year, not 2012, but in the years to come - as a state, we have to face the fact that we have three older nuclear power plants providing 20% of the state's electricity today.


Those power plants were brought into service in the 1970s. No one in the world has yet operated a nuclear power plant safely for more than 50 years. We're coming to a time - forget about growth for a minute - we're coming to a time where we will have to decide how we will replace that capacity.


My own personal belief is that those nuclear units, when they reach the end of their useful life, should and need to be replaced with other nuclear units. It's very important that we face that issue before there's a crisis.

Or find another safer, cleaner, renewable way to produce that energy, which is what the Clean Energy Jobs Act was really supposed to be about.

State Rep. Mark Honadel is ready to introduce the repeal bill again, to clear the way for more nukes, and the GOP was ready to push it through and send it to Gov. Scott Walker, who would sign it in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, Walker is reportedly ready to name Phil Montgomery, a former state rep and major nuclear advocate, to the Public Service Commission, perhaps as chair.

But maybe, just maybe, there's an opportunity here for a second look. Let's hope so.

Want to know more and get involved? Here's a good place to start: includes a number of environmental and public interest groups working on the issue. They'd welcome your help and support.


March 28, 2011 - 8:50am