Just as we neglected the economy for the last decade or more, we have also neglected nuclear energy. We don’t have a national storage system for spent fuel. We don’t have a spent fuel recycling process. We don’t have a standard national reactor design. We add incredible costs to power plants for an amazing list of things, many of which contribute nothing.Within the article he notes facts and raises issues that most people just plain don't know and haven't addressed:
Life doesn’t get simpler, it gets more complex. TMI led us to repudiate nuclear power as a nation – something in the long run we probably can’t afford to do. We just have to find ways to manage technology – all technologies – more responsibly. Sadly, we tend these days to put the wrong people in charge.
Some people argue that TMI was actually worse than Chernobyl in terms of the actual core damage. I don’t know. There’s no doubt that Chernobyl killed a lot of people and TMI didn’t. The difference was that TMI had a concrete containment vessel and Chernobyl had none. Building nuclear power plants without containment vessels was insane and Chernobyl proved that.And this is just plain scary. How could the designers not realize they were building a monster that would simply overwhelm the operators when something other than the simplest fault occurred?
Looking back at the accident with the benefit of knowing what it took to clean it up and what the workers found when they were finally able to send robots inside the containment, the TMI accident was very bad indeed. There were pressure spikes during the accident that would have cracked an average containment vessel, releasing radioactive gases into the atmosphere. Fortunately the Unit 2 containment wasn’t average. TMI-2 was built on the final approach path to Harrisburg International Airport, a former U.S. Air Force base, and was therefore beefed-up specifically to withstand the impact of a B-52 hitting the structure at 200 knots. A normal containment would have been breached.
TMI wasn’t caused by a computer failure but the accident was made vastly worse by an error of computer design. Specifically, TMI-2 had a terrible user interface.
Here’s how it was supposed to work. Something went wrong. The computer noticed what went wrong, set off audible and visual alarms, then sent a description of the problem to a line printer in the control room. The operator would read the print-out, check the trouble code in one of many manuals, then make the adjustment specified in the manual. Simple, eh?And here is the incomprehensible fact about the "design" of the Three Mile Island reactor:
Too simple, it turned out.
What happened at Unit 2 was a little more complex. A cascading series of events caused the computer to notice SEVEN HUNDRED things wrong in the first few minutes of the accident. The ONE audible alarm started ringing and stayed ringing continuously until someone turned it off as useless. The ONE visual alarm was activated and blinked for days, indicating nothing useful at all. The line printer queue quickly contained 700 error reports followed by several thousand error report updates and corrections. The printer queue was almost instantly hours behind, so the operators knew they had a problem (700 problems actually, though they couldn’t know that) but had no idea what the problem was.
So they guessed.
The average chemical plant or oil refinery is vastly more complex than a nuclear power plant. The nuke plant heats water to run a steam turbine while a chemical plant can make thousands of complex products out of dozens of feedstocks. Their process control was totally automated 30 years ago and had an amazing level safety and interlock systems. A lot of effort was put into the management of chemical plant startup, shutdown, and maintenance. The chemical plant control system was designed to force the highest safety. So when manufacturing engineers from chemical plants looked at TMI, they were shocked to see the low-tech manner in which the reactors were controlled and monitored. To the chemical engineers it looked like an accident waiting to happen.Here's Cringely's indictment of the US government:
Chemical plants were better designed than nuclear power plants in part because Congress did not legislate how the chemical industry designed their plants.