Detailed Description of Accident

At 36 seconds past 4:00 a.m. on the 28th of March, 1979 the first of a series of pumps feeding water to the steam generators at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant stopped functioning.

It was later determined that this was caused by maintenance work being done on the Number 7 Polisher at the time. The steam produced by the reactor not only runs the generators to produce electricity but also serves to cool down the reactor core, reducing the risk of a meltdown. When the flow of the water stopped the temperature inside the reactor core increased. This caused the water inside the reactor to expand, increasing the pressure inside the pressurizer to 2200 psi, 100 psi more then the normal. As designed the increase in pressure caused the Pilot Operated Relief Valve to open (PORV) draining the steam and water from the reactor core in to a tank on the floor.

At this point the three emergency feedwater pumps started. An operator noticed that they were running, but he did not notice that the valves on the emergency feedwater lines were closed. The panel in the control room had lights to indicate that the valves were closed, one of the lights was covered by a yellow maintenance tag, while the operator did not notice the other light.

Despite the opening of the PORV the pressure continued to rise, 9 seconds into the accident the control rods automatically lowered as designed to halt the fission reaction. This halted the fission reaction but the latent heat of the radioactive material continued to heat the water. Even though this heat was a fraction of what is normally produced during the fission reaction, it was enough to potentially overheat the core. 13 seconds into the accident the PORV should have closed since the pressure in the reactor had dropped. The light indicating that the PORV was energized (i.e. open) shut off, leading the operators to assume that the PORV had was now closed. In reality the PORV was stuck open and steam and water was escaping from the reactor. This is known as a Loss of Coolant Accident (LOCA).

In the first 100 minutes of the accident almost 32,000 gallons of water, or one third of the reactors capacity escaped through the PORV. The accident at TMI could have been contained had either the PORV shut at this point, or the operators noticed that the valve was stuck open. During the initial stages of the accident Edward Fredrick and Craig Faust, the Control Room Operators were present in the control room. One of the factors which added to the severity of the accident at TMI was the inadequate training of the employees at the facility. The training was the responsibility of Met Ed and Babcock and Wilcox.

Over 100 alarms went off in the control room during the first few minutes of the accident. This added to the confusion without providing any useful information to the operators. Both Faust and Fredrick dealt with the alarms to the best of their ability based on the training they had received.

2 Minutes into the accident the pressure if the water in the reactor dropped sharply which caused the Emergency Injection Water (EIW) to be automatically activated. This sent about 1000 gallons of water per minute into the reactor coolant system.

The falling pressure coupled with constant reactor coolant temperature should have alerted the operators to the LOCA. Instead, fearing that the core would have too much water, Operator Fredrick turned off one of the EIW pumps, reducing the flow of water into the core to less then 100 gallons per minute.

8 Minutes into the accident it was discovered that the emergency feed water was not reaching the core because of the closed valves. Operator Faust proceeded to open these valves, allowing water to rush into the steam generators. It was later discovered that these valves were closed two days earlier during a routine test of the pumps. At 4:11 a.m. an alarm signalled high water in the containment building. This is the building where all the water draining from the core through the PORV is stored. In itself this alarm should have been a clear indication of a leak in the coolant system. When Fredrick was informed of this he recommended that the sump pumps draining water to the containment building be shut off.

By about 6:15 a.m., roughly 2 hours and 15 minutes into the accident, the level of water in the reactor had dropped below the level of the core. Unknown to the operators the core is now uncovered. It is essential that the core remain covered at all times to prevent it from over heating. Once the core over heats the zirconium alloy of the fuel rod cladding reacts with the steam to produce hydrogen gas. This is what happened in the TMI reactor, not only is the hydrogen produced flammable, but the diminishment of the fuel rod cladding increases the risk of radioactive contamination.

The water continued to leak out of the PORV until 6:22 a.m. when Leland Rogers, the Babcock & Wilcox site representative at TMI asked the operators if they had shut the block valve which is the backup valve to the PORV. At this point the PORV was shut after having remained open for 2 hours and 22 minutes. It is still unclear whether Rogers was responsible for the valve being shut. Edward Fredrick testified that the valve was closed at the suggestion of a shift supervisor coming onto the next shift. Based on increasing radiation levels, at around 7:00 a.m. a site emergency was declared, indicating the threat of release of radioactivity into the surrounding environment. As the radiation levels continued to increase, the staff of TMI-2 was contacting local law enforcement and local energy providers. At 7:24 a general emergency was declared at the TMI-2 site and the site began to be evacuated. By 11:00 a.m. all nonessential personnel were ordered off of the island, and the remaining technicians were forced to wear face masks to block any air bourne radioactive particles. At 1:50 p.m. the operators in the control room heard what they described as a loud "thud." While they dismissed the sound as well as the pressure spike indicated by their instruments as a malfunction, the thud was actually a hydrogen explosion inside the containment building. It is another several hours before the partially melted core is brought to a controllable temperature using water from the primary loops.

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Immediate Reaction to the Accident

Shortly after the accident occurred, an incorrect reading reported traces of radioactive iodine-131 in the Goldsboror area. While the reading caused an immediate need for concern, the readings were later found to be erroneous. A build up in radioactive iodine in human's thyroids from inhaling radioactive particles or drinking contaminated milk remained the primary concern of the top officials including Governor William Scranton III. The Governor was incorrectly informed that the release of steam represented the primary concern to the surrounding environment, despite the fact that there was no indication that radioactive steam had escaped from the reactor core or the pumps feeding the core.

The evening of the accident, mayor of Goldsboro, Ken Meyers, met with his council members to discuss the possibility of an evacuation. The council members proceeded to go door to door through the town providing families with whatever information they could, mostly consisting of information they themselves had heard from news reports, as well as explaining the evacuation procedure should Governor Scranton declare a state of emergency.

Following the accident, numerous tests were conducted in attempts to conclude what if any effect increased radiation would have on the health of human, animal and plant life in the surrounding area. Through these studies, it was revealed that the majority of radioactive material had been contained by the core. Despite the immediate concern, however, a later government report indicated that there would likely be one additional death as a result of cancer due to increased radiation levels in the surrounding area in a 30 year period.

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The Cleanup Operation

During the cleanup operations at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor there were issues of ethical misconduct on the part of both organizations and individuals that occurred. Professor Stephen Unger of Columbia University has discussed one such example in his book "Controlling Technology."

Background information

In order to further discuss these issues it is important to understand the relationship between the organizations and individuals involved.

The key individuals involved were:

The task for cleaning up was given to an organization involving both General Public Utilities ( GPU) and the Bechtel Northern Corporation. At the same time the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was present on site to monitor the cleanup operations.

Laurence P. King was responsible for the site cleanup operations on the GPU side.

Richard D. Parks was employed by Bechtel as a senior startup engineer and seconded as an operations engineer to the Site Operations Department under Laurence P. King. His duties involved liaison with the NRC and ensuring compliance with licensing requirements. In addition he served as an alternate startup and test manager for the plant.

Edwin H. Gischel was the Plant Engineering Director and worked under Laurence P. King.

One of the issues later brought up was that the NRC worked too closely with the organizations directly involved with the clean up of the reactor. This tended to take away from the NRC's ability to regulate the safety and effectiveness of the operations. There were times when proposals would be unofficially approved by the NRC before the other organizations were able to fully develop or approve them. This, combined with the perception that the NRC was more concerned with expediting the cleanup process rather than ensuring it was done correctly encouraged people to cut corners.

The issue

In any industrial operation overhead cranes used for lifting heavy equipment play an important role. The polar crane used during the cleanup of TMI-2 had been damaged during the original accident. During the repairing of the crane various parts that were damaged had been substituted with replacements that were not exactly the same as the originals. In addition the crane had been modified to perform duties that exceeded the original manufacturer specifications. Due to the nature of the cleanup operation the changes made posed a hazard to not only the workers on site but also to people in the surrounding areas.

King received reports from both Parks and Gischel which stated concerns over the use of the Polar Crane. Prior to that King had already experienced difficulties with the cleanup operations. He felt that established engineering procedures were not being followed by other high level managers, particularly Bechtel people.

Based on what he had seen and the reports he received King decided that the crane should be carefully tested before being put into service. Top management at GPUN and Bechtel did not agree with King's assessment of the situation and felt that he was being overly cautious.

In reaction to the Gischel's report, King's superior ordered King to immediately fire Gischel. King refused and defended Gischel's position. At this point GPU's tactics turned nasty.

After suffering a stroke a year before, Gischel had seen a psychologist working under GPU. At the time, the psychologist suggested Gischel take a neuropsychological evaluation, but Gischel refused to take the test. Almost immediately following the release of the report, he again received a letter suggesting he take the exam. Robert Arnold, the president of GPU Nuclear, continued pressuring Gischel and in a clear violation of the doctor-patient relationship disclosed that he had knowledge of the topics of Gischel's meetings with the GPU employed psychologist. After a letter insisting Gischel take the exam from the board chairman of GPU, Gischel sent a sworn affidavit to Arnold explaining his take on the TMI cleanup operations and the events that followed. Gischel requested that Arnold forward the affidavit to the NRC which he did, but on July 1 after Gischel still refused to take the neuropsychological exam he was transferred to a different subsidiary of GPU.

Richard Parks also filed a sworn affidavit and submitted it to the NRC, and a harassment complaint filed against GPU Nuclear. Parks's complaint was filed on the grounds that a manager told him Parks's superiors were considering transferring him off site, he was demoted from his position as alternate startup and test manager, and was informed of a false rumor that his ex-wife (who was actually deceased) was trying to dig up dirt on Parks to get custody of their two children. The day after he filed his complaint Parks was suspended with pay on the grounds that his continued working would subject him to continued harassment from his coworkers.

In February of 1983 GPU Nuclear accused King of hiring employees away from GPUN for his own firm, Quiltec. Accused of a conflict of interest, King was suspended and locked out of his office while he claims that documents he wrote concerning the cleanup process were destroyed. King's secretary, Joyce Wagner, was also forced into suspension and within a month both king and Wagner had been fired.

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The Accident's Impact

The numerous ethical questions surrounding the TMI-2 cleanup procedure might suggest that nothing positive could have resulted from the incident. Beyond the questionable behavior on the part of the companies responsible for the cleanup, radiation presented a major problem for the cleanup crews as did algae that not only grew, but thrived in the contaminated water. There were important scientific as well as sociological issues that resulted from the accident. The following is based on Matthew L. Wald's article "After the Meltdown, Lessons from a Cleanup" that appeared in the April 24, 1990 edition of the New York Times

What the cleanup effort did prove was that, despite requiring 400 workers, over 4 1/2 years, and 970 million dollars, the cleanup of a nuclear disaster area is possible. Unlike the Soviet approach to the cleanup at the Chernobyl disaster site, where the reactor was encased in an enormous concrete structure, the cleanup of the reactor site and especially the reactor vessel at TMI-2 provided many answers to questions surrounding the accident and even provided some hints as to the nature of exactly how stable reactor vessels are.

During the cleanup process the team learned that despite the 51% meltdown of the reactor core, that the reactor vessel was relatively undamaged. This indicated two separate points. First that it was far easier to have a meltdown to the core than expected, but secondly that at least in this case, the reactor vessel was able to withstand temperature much higher than anticipated.

Beyond scientific impact, however, remains the impact that the accident had on the public. Many analysts in the nuclear industry believe that the incident at TMI-2 has meant the nuclear industry has only one more chance. Analysts feel that another nuclear accident on the scale of TMI-2 will result in public outcry for the closing of the other nuclear plants around the nation.

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Return to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident.

Cite this page: "Detailed Description of Accident" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 2/16/2006 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Friday, October 31, 2014 <www.onlineethics.org/Resources/Cases/tmiindex/desc.aspx>