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Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective

by J. Samuel Walker
The University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2004
315 pp., illus. 22 b/w. Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 0-520-23940-7.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
School of Arts and Humanities, The University of Texas at Dallas


On March 28, 1979, the worst accident in the history of commercial nuclear power in the United States occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (TMI) near Middletown, Pennsylvania when a substantial portion of the core of one of the two reactors melted. For five days, the citizens of central Pennsylvania and the entire world followed with growing alarm the efforts of private, state, and national authorities to prevent the crippled reactor from spewing radiation into the environment.

Now, 25 years later, J. Samuel Walker, historian for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, provides an authoritative account of this critical event. His book, Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective, provides a minute-by-minute account of the accident, as well as assessments of the long-term aftermath. Walker's insightful review of the acrimonious national controversy over nuclear power that preceded the TMI accident, as well as his accounting of how TMI remains to this day the single most important event in the commercial nuclear power industry, and its regulation provides substantial context and perspective.

In brief, the accident began at 4:00 am on March 28 when pumps circulating cooling water into the reactor's core failed. Falling coolant levels exposed the reactor's fuel rods, which ruptured releasing dangerous amounts of hydrogen. Temperatures in the core rose to over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Sections of the reactor's core crumbled into a molten mass. As the alarms continued to sound, officials from the Metropolitan Edison Company and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) realized they faced a serious challenge in trying to cool the core and prevent a complete meltdown that might have destroyed the defensive containment system surrounding the reactor.

Five days later, the situation at TMI was declared under control. The hydrogen bubble in the containment building was dissipated, thus greatly diminishing the possibility of an explosion destroying the building and releasing radioactive material. The contaminated water in the plant's cooling system was collected and cleaned of radioactive elements. The reactor was shut down, and its molten core removed.

As Walker makes clear, from the start of the accident, the situation was more complex than anyone knew, or led others to believe. This lack of clear information about the situation inside TMI was paralleled by the lack of clearly defined roles and lines of authority at the private, state, and federal levels. The result, says Walker, of misinterpretation of information and poor communications, was an atmosphere of crisis and danger.

Despite the danger, Walker notes that no humans, livestock, or agricultural products were exposed to adverse levels of radiation. The corporate and political outcomes were less bright, however. As Walker recounts, the TMI accident incited widespread criticism of nuclear power technology, the nuclear industry, and the NRC. Critics faulted the industry and the NRC for their lack of performance both before and after the accident. The international attention garnered by the crisis redoubled the determination and enhanced the credibility of the antinuclear movement. Arguably, the United States nuclear industry never recovered.

As Walker concludes, TMI was "a severe crisis that resulted from mistakes, oversights, and misjudgments" (3). While a number of equipment failures led to the TMI emergency, it was the "human-element" that converted these minor malfunctions into a severe accident. Despite the generally favorable outcome of the accident, and the subsequent efforts to improve nuclear safety, the memories of the tension, the uncertainty, and confusion made a strong impression on popular perception and TMI is widely recalled as a major catastrophe, the worst in the United States' nuclear industry.

Ultimately, TMI demonstrated the potent of nuclear power, beyond other modern technologies, to inspire fear. The dual outcome was to galvanize both regulatory and operational improvements designed to reduce the risks of another such accident as well as opposition to the expansion of nuclear power.

In his book Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective, Walker captures the high human drama surrounding the TMI accident, sets it in the context of the heated debate over nuclear power in the seventies, and analyzes the social, technical, and political issues it raised. His account of the days and events surrounding the TMI accident clear up misconceptions and his discussion of the aftermath provide thoughtful and sober grounds for the continued debate over the role of nuclear power in our contemporary world.



Updated 1st December 2004

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