Echoes of Disaster Reinforce the Importance of Renewables


Photo credit: Mona Miri

Since the recent earthquake and tsunami tragedy in Japan, nuclear facilities around the world have been on alert. Here in the US, we've had our own terrifying events, notably those that occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Three Mile Island, which—like the Indian Plant outside New York City and other plants in New Jersey—is on alert. In the town of Middletown, the residential areas stand against a landscape dominated by the nuclear plant and it's monumental water towers. It's hard not to be reminded about what happened here in 1979 when a core meltdown occured at Unit 2.

Sam Walker a former historian of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission remembers what happened on March 28th 1979. "A valve stuck open and didn't close as it was supposed to and coolant ran out of the core. It was a minor breakdown that was compounded by the operator error," says Walker, who also wrote a book called the accident. "What they could see was that something was wrong. And they could see it because alarms were sounding, lights were flashing, it was clear that something was wrong. But it wasn't clear exactly what was wrong."

Walker continues:

The confusion of what happen at the Three Mile Island happened beyond the control room. Metropolitan Edison, the utility that operated the plant at the time, insisted that it was a minor accident with no release of radioactivity into the environment. By the afternoon the news and situation had changed. Governor Bill Scranton at the time told reporters that wasn't true....the situation is more complex than the company led us to believe. There has been a release of radioactivity into the environment.

The Three Mile Island crisis ended 5 days later. No one was injured and a small amount of radioactivity was released into the air. Although it's said to have had a small impact on the environment and on people's well being, it had a huge impact in the US nuclear industry. Not a single Nuclear Power Plant has been built since the accident 32 years ago.

Still, the United States is the world's largest nuclear power producing country and accounts for 30 percent of worldwide nuclear generation of electricity. In total the united States has 104 nuclear reactors producing 799 billion kWh in 2009 over 20 percent of the electrical output. Currently, there are four to six units planned to be built by 2018, closing the 32 year gap on nuclear power expansion.

This is an alarming thought in the wake of the recent tragedy in Japan. However, since the Three Mile Island accident safety standards and controls has been been improved. The most important change has been updating operating training to reduce "human factor" situations like the one that led to the events of March 28th 1979.

Though the regulations and processes governing nuclear power have improved, new developments in alternative energy sources make nuclear less attractive.


Photo credit: Mona Miri

I recently had the chance to visit and tour the billion dollar Deer Island Water Treatment plant, which is to date one of the most environmentally friendly facilities in Massachusetts, if not the entire Northeast. The plant removes human, household, business, and industrial pollutant from wastewater that originates in homes and business in 43 greater Boston communities. It self generates about 23 percent of its electricity and more than half of the Island's energy demand is provided by on-site, renewable generation, including several wind turbines that were built in 2009. The facility proves that even major industrial facilities can be operated by renewables.

The accident that occured at Three Mile Island pales in comparison to the tragedy that has befallen Japan. Yet, even Three Mile Island was frightening enough to cause a decades-long shift away from nuclear power. The disaster in Fukishima—which is magnitudes more severe—should strengthen the world's resolve to satisfy its energy demans with clean, renewable, sources that promote health and wellbeing, not jeapordize it.

Read more about the disaster in Japan:
Fukushima Nuclear Crisis Upgraded to INES Level 7, Like Chernobyl
Is Now the Time to Rethink Japan's Energy Future?
More Citizen Involvement For US Nuclear Power Plant Siting, Design, & Upgrades

Tags: Clean Energy | Nuclear Power | Renewable Energy

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