The Past Is Present at Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant

Photographer: Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

Exelon Corp.’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, in 2011. Close

Exelon Corp.’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, in 2011.

Photographer: Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

Exelon Corp.’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, in 2011.

Beyond the cabbage patch and rows of pre-cut Christmas trees, past fruit stands filled with pumpkins and apples, along the bank of the Susquehanna River, sits the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

It’s by far the most robust and majestic structure in the neighborhood, an unlikely blend of the Loire Valley Castles in France and Eastern Europe's Communist-era architecture. Events here three decades ago left the plant half-dead, and with it, U.S. nuclear energy policy.

The worst-ever U.S. nuclear energy accident occurred on March 28, 1979, when the core in Three Mile Island's Unit 2 overheated and partially melted. The facility had come online just three months earlier. Lacking appropriate real-time monitors and training, operators didn't realize they had a cooling problem and failed to prevent the accident, according to an accident summary posted on U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission website. Most of the radiation was contained and whatever was released had ``a negligible effect'' on people outside the plant, who suffered mainly from ``mental stress'' related to speculation about how serious the accident was, according to the presidential commission report released in Oct. 1979.

Visitors begin their tour in the plant's training center, which has a replica of the nuclear power generator's control room. Howard Crawford, a 35-year veteran of the plant, said that before the accident, plant operators were getting one week of training a year, and had to learn procedures by heart rather than practice them in real-life conditions.

On March 28, 1979, Crawford was supposed to restart unit 1, shut down for refueling. Instead, he became responsible for predicting any radiation release that would get beyond the plant. He stayed at the plant for about thirty consecutive hours after the accident.

After the Three Mile Island event, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) required all nuclear power plants to have such a simulator. New operators must spend 18 months training in this room, which to the untrained eye might just as easily be a Space Shuttle cockpit, full of switches, knobs, screens and computers, and surfaces bearing fat books detailing procedures for every conceivable situation. After those 18 months, plant operators must return every sixth week to the simulator, where they log 100 hours a year.

Unit 2 never reopened. It's owned by FirstEnergy Corp. of Akron, Ohio, which came to its possession when purchasing GPU Inc. in 2000. FirstEnergy is responsible for long-term shutdown and decommissioning of the unit. Exelon Corp. operates Unit 1, which has 852 megawatts of capacity, or enough to power about 800,000 homes.

Today, the industry must cope not just with the legacy of Three Mile Island but of more recent catastrophes. Nuclear plants worldwide have rethought security and safety since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., and the March 11, 2011, Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power crisis. “These were sort of tectonic changes that took place in the industry,” Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon, said of the three events.

Since 9/11 Exelon has spent as much as $30 million on plant security, doubling the number of guards, and arming them with greater fire power. Observation towers reminiscent of prisons allow surveillance from above. Fences trimmed with razor wire encircle the generator and reactor buildings. Motion detectors pick up unauthorized activity. Closed circuit TV cameras watch from ceilings in every room and corridor. Entering the plant requires passage through explosive and metal detectors. Before landing a job here, candidates have to pass an FBI background search and a credit check. Heavily armed guards wander everywhere. 

Despite the safety and security measures, there's just something about walking through a nuclear reactor building that's unsettling to the untrained visitor, at least this untrained visitor. Fortunately, professionals abound. As I’m quietly freaking out about standing 150 feet away from the center of a 570-degree Fahrenheit reactor, employees wearing hard hats, hearing protection and gloves go about their business, some carrying cups of coffee, enjoying collegial banter. 

The plant employs about 800 people, most of them watching graphs and monitors, making sure the plant is working properly. On the day I visit, shift manager Edward Carreras is busy testing a diesel generator, a back-up source of power. He is also looking at what sort of new, so-called ``flexible'' equipment could be used to boost safety. Three Mile Island, just like any other plant in the U.S. has been urged by the NRC to add backup electrical power and cooling systems at each reactor in case natural disasters damage or limit access to plant's safety devices. Plants owners are shopping for additional pumps, chargers and generators to provide additional layer of safety on the top of the precautions included in the plant's design.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan is forcing the nuclear power industry to recalculate its worst case scenarios and consider how to cope with great devastation. “We’re still figuring that out,” Nesbit said. “Thinking about the unthinkable, is what we’re talking about.”

Klimasinska covers nuclear power and oil industry regulation for Bloomberg News. 

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