Takeaways From Three Mile Island

September 25, 2019 Updated: October 18, 2019

Commentary

On Sept. 20, the notorious Three Mile Island (TMI) Nuclear Generating Station in Middletown, Pennsylvania, generated its last kilowatt of electrical energy. Exelon Generation, the operating company, closed TMI for economic reasons.

The closing received widespread media coverage. After all, TMI was, as the media have repeatedly reminded us, the site of “the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.”

In March 1979, a series of mechanical malfunctions and human errors caused a partial meltdown in reactor No. 2. People panicked. Thousands fled the area, putting as much distance as possible between themselves and TMI.

The incident had profound long-term consequences. As reported by Ledyard King in USA Today, “‘Public confidence in nuclear energy … declined sharply following the Three Mile Island accident,’ according to the World Nuclear Association, a pro-industry group. ‘It was a major cause of the decline in nuclear construction through the 1980s and 1990s.'”

A closer look at how the media reported this incident—both then and now—is instructive.

Safety

It’s ironic and a little strange that millions of people adamantly oppose nuclear energy, when “the worst nuclear accident” in our history had not a single fatality. The few fatalities that have occurred at U.S. nuclear power facilities over the decades have been an occasional electrocution or workplace accident—tragic, to be sure, but none were due to radiation.

Indeed, the nuclear power generating industry has had a remarkable safety record. Workplace injuries have been relatively rare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in one recent, typical year, injuries were more than 500 times more likely in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, and almost 2,000 times more likely in construction, than in the nuclear energy industry—but you would never know that from watching TV or reading newspapers. Isn’t such a safety record worthy of admiration and gratitude rather than condemnation?

When the partial meltdown happened in 1979, people near TMI were tormented by two fears—fear of a nuclear explosion and fear of nuclear radiation. While the lethality of nuclear explosions and radiation are indisputable, there was no need to fear either at TMI. The one was a physical impossibility, the other a million-to-one long shot. Allow me to explain.

The threat of a bomb-like explosion was nonexistent. The late Czech engineer Petr Beckmann trenchantly wrote that the odds of the fuel rods in a nuclear power plant exploding were equal to the odds of your chewing gum exploding.

The key factor is the concentration of the uranium isotope U-235 that is needed to make a nuclear bomb. In nature, U-235 has an approximate purity of 0.7 percent. A difficult and highly technical process is needed to enrich it to 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent purity—the concentration needed in nuclear fuel rods to generate electricity.

To make a nuclear bomb requires a much more advanced and challenging process that enriches U-235 to a concentration of 85 percent or 90 percent. Fuel rods in nuclear power plants, in short, fall far short of containing U-235 that is sufficiently enriched to make a bomb.

The other threat—the threat of lethal radiation affecting the people near TMI—was minuscule.

There was a simple but all-important difference between the TMI accident and the 1986 accident at the Soviet nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, where approximately 54 people (tabulations differ) perished in the short run and perhaps several thousand more victims succumbed later on. Here in the United States, where individual life is valued, there were massive concrete containment buildings housing the nuclear fuel rods at TMI.

By contrast, in the Soviet Union, with its ideology of the expendability of individual lives, there were no structures to contain the radiation.

The radiation level right outside TMI after the accident measured less than 100 millirems. The average exposure to the population living near the plant was 1.2 millirems. To put that in perspective, the walls of Grand Central Station constantly emit more than 100 millirems of radiation. The safety level stipulated for U.S. astronauts in outer space is 25,000 millirems. It requires 100,000 millirems to have any sort of detectable effect. Half of the people exposed to 450,000 millirems of radiation from the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki survived.

The only way people near TMI could have been at risk from radiation would have been if an earthquake or bomb had damaged the containment buildings or if saboteurs deliberately released the radioactive air or water inside it.

Even though the local population was at virtually no risk from harmful levels of radiation, the media, by and large, have steadfastly neglected to report this good news for more than 40 years. Even when reporting TMI’s closure on Sept. 20, journalists couldn’t resist perpetuating the myth that TMI was somehow dangerous.

One reported, “The plant’s four cooling towers will remain part of the landscape for now, foreboding concrete tombstones that seem out of place in the bucolic Susquehanna Valley …” Another article included this photograph caption: “A cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant menacingly looms behind an abandoned playground …”

How perverse to write that the very cooling towers that unfailingly protected human lives represent some grim threat. If anything, those towers are (admittedly homely) monuments to prudent foresight and scientific excellence. They’re fitting reminders that ours is a society that values and protects human life.

Takeaways

There are two important takeaways from the TMI story that have nothing to do with nuclear energy itself. The first is what a poor job our media have done in reporting this story over the course of four decades.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Fear always springs from ignorance.” One of the dirty little secrets of the media is that fear sells—people “consume” a lot more media product when something scary is happening. So, the media could have mercifully spared a lot of people the anguish of fear about TMI back in 1979 and in the years since if they had dispelled ignorance by reporting scientific facts, but they didn’t even try. Instead, they found it more profitable to feed popular fears by keeping people in the dark and hyping frightening but unrealistic scenarios.

The exact same dynamic is in place today the way most media outlets play along with scary climate change stories. Guess what, people? You are in no more danger of being victimized by global warming today than the residents of Middletown were in danger of being nuked in 1979.

The other takeaway pertains to democratic socialism and the Green New Deal.

As the nuclear tragedy at Chernobyl illustrated, when the state is in charge of an economy, strange things happen to production. Centrally planned economies become discombobulated, uncoordinated, and prone to shortages. There isn’t enough to go around, so the planners start cutting corners.

The corners cut by U.S. planners might not be as ghastly as the Soviet decision not to build proper containment structures for nuclear power plants, but they will still be costly. Be careful about overestimating government competence.

Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith & Freedom.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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